Finding and keeping the right people is a very detailed process for Suzan Heimer and Fred Kuhr, director of sow production at Professional Swine Management.
Fred Kuhr, director of sow production at Professional Swine Management (PSM), leads a training session at the PSM offices in Carthage, IL.
Little is left to chance for prospective employees to work in the Professional Swine Management (PSM) system based in Carthage, IL.
“We start with a pretty rigid screening process when someone applies for a position within the PSM system,” says Suzan Heimer, PSM human resources manager. Farm size ranges from 1,800 to 6,400 sows. Candidates must possess the skill set laid out in respective job descriptions, Heimer says. “We rarely deviate from that.”
Finding and keeping the right people is a very detailed process for Heimer and Fred Kuhr, director of sow production at PSM.
“One of the first things we do when it comes to hiring employees is to have Suzan spend some time interviewing the manager of the farm to find the type of employee who is going to fit their needs,” Kuhr explains.
“In doing so, we make sure we identify those who are right for the position. This approach gives Suzan quite a bit of understanding of the kind of personality and motivation that the farm manager is looking for,” he adds.
Heimer and Kuhr agree that the key hiring elements they look for are motivation, eagerness and a drive to succeed.
Knowledge, skills, ability and a cultural fit into the hog environment are other key selling points for a prospective employee, Heimer says.
The Buddy System
New employees are mentored by certified employees, Kuhr says. “You have to be trained by a certified employee to do your task and are assigned a ‘mentoring buddy’ at orientation to help you become certified.”
The buddy assigned to the new employee at orientation is someone who can assist him/her with getting acclimated into a production system and answer any questions about their job and their job environment, Heimer notes.
The buddy works through a new hire checklist for the first two days of employment. “With the assistance of the buddy and the checklist, we ensure that the new employee learns about the basic housekeeping items — when to take breaks, location of exit doors, where to park their car,” Kuhr says.
“Let’s face it, the first day on the job, we are all nervous, regardless of where we work. We feel this helps ease some of the nerves, fears and apprehensions,” Heimer says.
New employees spend their first day at the main office headquarters filling out paperwork, watching educational videos and poring over the employee manual.
The second day they go out to the hog farm to get acclimated to their new position, and they work an abbreviated day to avoid interfering with the farm’s work flow, Heimer continues.
“New employees go with their assigned buddies, who show them the farm, give them a walkthrough, get them some exposure to the system and the people they will work with before they start work the next day at their regular starting time,” Kuhr adds.
‘Hiring Right’ Safeguards
New workers go through a 90-day introductory period. “We don’t call it a probationary period; we call it an introductory period, where they learn about their responsibilities and we can learn about them as well, to see whether they are going to be a good fit,” Heimer relates.
All of the “hiring right” safeguards implemented at PSM serve a purpose. “You want employees to stay, so you need to treat them right once they hit the front door. Lay out those expectations and continue to provide them with feedback,” she continues.
New hires are evaluated frequently for performance at 30 days, 90 days, six months, and one year — then on an annual basis thereafter, Kuhr says.
“You want to be able to track their progress. You have to be able to provide them with feedback. You don’t know how they are doing unless you monitor and track them. The employees deserve to know how they are doing and how they can improve,” Heimer clarifies.
PSM changed their hiring protocols three years ago after conferring with farm managers and the production team, who provided the human resources staff with ideas on how to develop a more structured orientation process and action plan.
“Generally, if employees leave, it is during that first 90 days,” Kuhr says. Turnover rate has been reduced by about 40% since introducing the more structured interview/orientation
Heimer says employee tenure has increased at PSM. “Fred (Kuhr) and his team have done a phenomenal job of implementing a plan to promote from within. Employees have career paths, and those career paths are celebrated,” she says. Promotions are announced in the company’s Pork Times monthly newsletter.
An ability to lead is important in farm managers and production managers, and PSM expends a lot of effort to identify the best candidates within their own ranks. These vacancies are often created as the workforce ages.
PSM utilizes a manager trainee program developed specifically for their system, which helps groom individuals they have identified as having leadership skills and who have shown that they want to lead people.
“We coach and mentor them to be a leader, but they have to have that desire and drive to lead a team,” Heimer says.
Written production trainee programs are available to anyone who has the desire and has shown the aptitude to advance within the company, Heimer says.
Manager trainees go through a series of orientation exercises and are interviewed by several different department managers. Once hired, they are given a farm-specific reference manual.
Those who have completed manager training and certification are eligible to apply for any announced positions, Kuhr adds.
Employees who have completed those protocols have the inside track to be promoted. Heimer keeps Kuhr posted on which employees are gearing up for possible promotion into a manager position.
“In the PSM system, we pride ourselves in the fact that we’ve developed our own training toolboxes that we require all of our management candidates to complete. There are specific modules for each segment of production within the sow farm, including breeding and farrowing,” Heimer explains.
Most standard training is done on farms using Webinars and conference calls. The interactive modules come with a short quiz at the end of each program that the manager trainee must pass. But the testing exercise doesn’t end there.
“Once they have completed all of the modules for the segment of production they will work in, a PSM production manager actually walks that employee through the barn and tests them on what they have learned from the training toolboxes,” Heimer says. “That’s the seal of approval. Once they’ve passed that final challenge, they are eligible to advance in their career.” They then receive a letter of certification.
Kuhr says another area of training for farm managers is to learn “how to manage people, how to manage themselves, how to understand their personality, how to understand other people’s personality, and how they fit together.”
A number of personality profile tools are used to understand each person’s strengths and to learn how to communicate better, Heimer says.
“It is really good for helping the team understand who has strengths in what areas and to make sure we get the right people in the right areas,” Kuhr stresses.
Joe Connor, DVM, Carthage (IL) Veterinary Service, says the challenges and opportunities that their system faces in bringing in bright college graduates is not due to their skill levels. The barrier to success is being able to train them and give them experience, in a short period of time, in how to manage large numbers of people. A typical 5,000-sow farm in the PSM system will employ 16-17 people.
PSM currently oversees 330 workers at the farm level.
Biosecurity — a critical part of today’s employee management training — starts on day one of new employee orientation.
“Employees view an eight-minute video we’ve developed that is specific to our production system. We spend a great deal of time discussing biosecurity during orientation. Employees sign off that they have received this information,” Heimer affirms.
The human resources safety coordinator at PSM follows up with biosecurity education on an individual basis. Employees can refer to the employee manual for more details.
Kuhr says one of the main biosecurity rules calls for employees to have their vehicles washed and cleaned inside and out. Vehicles are checked at the main office in Carthage by a certified inspector and must pass inspection before they are allowed to drive to the farm.