Pork producers are in the people business; they just happen to raise hogs.

Dorothy Lecher, human resources director for Prema-Lean Pork and Corya Pork Farm, both near Greensburg, IN, says employee relations is the number one problem affecting the industry. Lecher also manages 140 employees on 12 farms ranging from 1,200 to 5,200 sows.

“Producers tell me they don't know how to manage people, they are more comfortable with pigs,” she says. “We know more about people than we think we do if we relate it back to pigs.”

For example, she equates the replacement rate on a sow herd to the annual turnover rate for employees.

“Producers understand the seasonal impacts on animals; they don't know what the impact is on people,” she says. “I find a higher turnover in September and October by looking at when turnover happens. If employees are going to move, they will move before winter gets here.”

Lecher equates average sow parity to the age and maturity of the group of barn employees.

“If you have 100% turnover, you'll have a brand new group in the barn, and they will act like kids. Their knowledge level is very low,” she explains. “You need someone to stay around to understand all the trends that happen in that sow herd.”

Smaller groups of employees will advance to the mature, “adult” stage quicker than larger groups. Why? The social structure of a small group is less complex than that of a larger group.

Current Employee Needs

Lecher offers this laundry list of employee expectations:

  • Health and dental insurance.

  • Vacation and sick time that rewards long-time employees for their dedication.
  • A retirement program.
  • Career development, including basic training for entry level workers and people skills for managers, and the ability to move from farm to farm within the company.

Future Employee Needs

Lecher stresses that employees will want child care, more flexible hours and fewer work hours in the future.

She urges producers to reconsider the hours they require employees to work and if changes would truly affect performance. She also offers this suggestion on how to reduce hours worked/week: Employees work 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Friday and 4 to 4.5 hours on Saturday or Sunday on alternating weekends. Under this schedule, the employees who work a weekend shift get Wednesday afternoon off, making a 42.5 hour week.

“If you wean on Monday and Thursday, Wednesday afternoon is the catch-all day. That's the day half the crew can leave and you aren't going to miss something,” she says.

Getting Good Employees

Lisa Tokach, DVM, is a partner at the Abilene Animal Hospital, Abilene, KS, and performs human resources duties for Kansas Swine Alliance.

She suggests these moves to get good potential employees to notice your company:

  • Cultivate a good reputation by presenting to the local civic groups. Spending time with the local Lions or Rotary club educates the non-farm groups and gets you noticed. A slide show or video can give folks a look inside the barns. “I'm amazed what people think goes on in those big barns,” she says. “I'd rather that they know what actually goes on than what they think is going on.”

  • Get involved with the local FFA chapter. Work with the local ag in the classroom program.

  • Donate some pork for local group events. “It doesn't cost much, but it goes a long way with the community,” she says.

  • Have a Christmas party at a local establishment to reward the people you already employ and show others that it's a fun company to work for.

Writing Help Wanted Ads

Tokach suggests reading the classified section to get ideas.

“Pick up the paper and act like you are unemployed or want a better job,” she suggests. “Look through the ads and see what gets your attention.”

Putting a typical help wanted ad that reads “Farrowing assistant needed at XYZ Farm; Competitive salary and benefits. Call 123-4567” will get typical results, she says.

Tokach suggests using bigger type and a headline that reads something like: “This Little Piggy Needs a Caretaker.” Stress that the barns are environmentally controlled, work hours and that experience is not necessary. A fun advertisement that is informative will get more and better responses.

Ten Skills for Good Listening

Good employee/employer relations start with good, two-way communication. Ronald Hanson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln agribusiness program director, outlines 10 good listening skills to ensure employee/employer concerns are heard.

  1. Do not pass judgment until you have understood what the other person has said.

    “You should always give the person a chance to explain,” Hanson says.

  2. Do not add viewpoints or change what the other person has said. The key is really listening, being open to what the employee is saying, through both verbal and non-verbal communication.

  3. Do not permit your attention to drift away while the other person is still talking. Don't do paperwork, check e-mail or answer the phone. Instead close the office door and focus on him/her.

  4. Do not interrupt or change the subject. “This is what I call cutting them off at the pass,” Hanson says. “We change the subject from uncomfortable topics to the weather or football.”

  5. Do not close your mind. “If your attitude is set beforehand, you may as well go behind the barn and talk to a tree,” he says.

  6. Do not finish for the other person. Even if he/she takes extra time to develop a thought or explain an issue, allow him/her to fully express themselves.

  7. Do not permit “wishful listening” or “selective hearing.” You must listen to everything and not select the items that you want to hear, he says.

  8. Do not rehearse your response. “Do not formulate your rebuttal ahead of time,” he says. “When you rehearse, you are not listening to the other person. They may have said something important and you weren't listening.”

  9. Do not put the person off. “Saying ‘we'll talk about it later’ means the discussion isn't going to happen,” Hanson says.

  10. Don't rush. Do not say “This better be quick,” or “I'm in a hurry,” he suggests.
    — Gretchen Schlosser