What a historic worker shortage in agriculture means for recruiting executives

Ten years ago, Mike Smith, President and CEO of Ag 1 wrote a whitepaper describing a coming storm for businesses and corporations in Agriculture. The Ag labor markets, he noted, were about to encounter a massive shortage in workers.

Fast forward ten years, we are now living through the effects of that shortage in a very real way.

To recap: the worker shortage in Agriculture has been growing at a rate that outpaces other industries and has been stubbornly persistent. Many companies are now feeling the toll it’s taken on their ability to recruit the executive and professional-level talent they need for their business.

Here are the 3 basic issues Mike noted would create a shortage of viable candidates Ag is experiencing today:

  1. Geographics – The bulk of the viable candidates don’t live where they are needed.
  2. Education – while many workers are experienced in Ag, they lack the higher education needed to excel in executive and leadership positions.
  3. Retirements – perhaps the biggest drag on maintaining a full roster of executive and professional candidates.

The bottom line: While there is no quick answer to the current worker shortage, there is an immediate solution for finding and recruiting the executive and professional level candidates you need for your business. Read on to learn how the worker shortage has evolved in Agriculture and how other companies who, like Michael, saw the coming shortage and acted to find a solution.

Geographics and Recruiting Agriculture’s Professionals

In the past ten years, increasing numbers of people have relocated to rural communities. Even still, many Agriculture companies are based too far away from densely populated areas, so the choice of talent continues to persist. But, how is it that some industries with remote geographic locations are booming while others are struggling?

For example, the oil industry, known for its incredible booms, has had little problem attracting talent. Oil fields, which are located in rural areas just like many Agriculture companies, can move in derricks and the hiring begins. So, where do those workers come from?

In some cases, oil wages are inflated to the point that oil companies can attract faraway workers from just word of mouth. But wages for Agriculture’s leadership have never been better. So, while parallels in the oil industry present the same challenge, they don’t explain the persistent shortages the Agriculture sector is struggling with.

More often than not, we’ve found that many companies in Agriculture are slower to adapt to a changing market. Even during ten years of declines, their recruiting strategy has not yet evolved quick enough to keep up with the changing times.

The Education Gap: Where’s The Investments In Tomorrow’s Ag Leaders

These infographics, courtesy of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reveal what we suspected in 2010, and what has largely been confirmed in 2020. These graphs put the broad gap between education and earnings into real perspective. In 2010, a worker with less than a high school education averaged 14.1%, and in 2020, that number is still an incredible 11.7% unemployment nationwide. At the same time, a worker with a bachelor’s degree averages 5.5% unemployment, while professionals with a doctoral degree averaged less than 2.5% unemployment.

Earnings & Unemployment Rates by Level of Education – 2011

Earnings & Unemployment Rates by Level of Education – 2020

In summary, Agriculture’s executives and professionals, the majority of whom have a bachelor’s degree or higher, do not struggle with high unemployment.

While many seasoned and tenured professionals in Agriculture may have worked up the ranks thanks to their market knowledge and industry know-how, many still face a blockage in the upper ranks where higher education is critical.

This too has been changing, albeit slowly, in the past ten years. Previously, when Ag employers had a higher selection of executive and professional talent, they could afford to be choosy, with highly restrictive job qualifications being prerequisite to consideration for a role. But many companies are beginning to take another hard look at the requirements they’ve set for their roles. And this has accelerated exponentially in the past two years.

For example, previously, Ag companies looking for a Crop Nutrients Sales Representative used to require a Bachelor’s Degree in Agronomy. And while a bachelor’s degree in Agronomy is still highly useful, it says little about a candidate’s capability to make client connections, sell new products, or gain access to untapped markets. Those employers who are looking for a more tangible candidate profile are turning to demonstrable results in sales or in a related field or coursework in plant science, soil science, plant health, and plant nutrition.

Employers are not lowering their standards; they’re adjusting their criteria to more meaningful metrics in order to truly vet the value of their candidates.

Retirements: Agriculture’s Leading Cause for a Worker Shortage

The pace for retirements over the last ten years is only going to accelerate over the next decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates that we’ll only have one worker entering the workforce for every two workers retiring. When you consider that the BLS expects open jobs to grow rapidly in the next decade, the statistics for an industry facing high rates or retirement can become quite sobering.

This graph shows how the US population is getting older and retiring at increasing rates, year over year.

Rate of Retirements 1950-2050 (projected)

Agriculture businesses that plan to remain in business, let alone grow and expand in the future, need a new solution for sourcing and recruiting candidates.

Changing Values of Today’s Candidates

Here are the facts. Agriculture companies are working too hard to find candidates that fit a profile that is becoming increasingly rare – candidates who:

  • Are mid-career
  • Have a bachelor’s degree or higher
  • Are experienced in a niche field of agriculture
  • Are located in the Heartland (mostly rural) area of the country

These days, employers are finding less and less viable candidates, no matter how long they’re searching. For those companies who do find someone, they’re making their decision very rapidly, even if they’re not certain if they’d be a good fit.

Good candidates are hard to find. But at Ag 1 Source, we find them. And when we do, we often find they are hesitant to move to a different employer. They need a very good reason to leave their career for the unknown.

Add to that the fact that, while today’s executive and professional candidates are highly skilled, they are much less interested in the same high-hour workweek that the “Boomer” generation expects. They’re wanting more flexibility and a work/life balance.

Adjustments For Ag Employers

Good news is Ag employers have several tools at their disposal in attracting and recruiting today’s professionals. Here are just some of the adjustments you can make to hire the talent you need:

  1. Be more flexible in your requirements – for example, change your requirements from higher degrees and offer more training.
  2. Begin to look at candidates, not for their skills, but for their ability to perform.
  3. Consider someone less experienced, and pair them with a trainer or mentor.
  4. Consider someone nearing the sunset of their career, with some work hour or seasonal flexibility. This group can bring some substantial experience to the table and really need consideration for what they can offer, and the population of this group is growing.
  5. Begin your plan toward becoming a “Destination Employer” (ask us how).
  6. Create a company “Ambassador” position, someone that champions all the great reasons for working at your company.
  7. Improve your culture at work with an aim toward reducing turnover.
  8. Consider contracting some of your work out to outside of your immediate area, such as remote accounting, payroll, or technical services.
  9. Streamline your hiring process and don’t cause delays. Good candidates are, in most cases, also considering other opportunities if they are considering yours.

All these things are great steps you can take to attract and recruit the talent you need. It may be hard work and take time, but these changes can undoubtedly improve your ability to hire. And so it is noteworthy that perhaps the most useful step of all could be the easiest and get your company immediate results.

Get Proactive: Work With Ag 1 Source

For those employers who are struggling to find talent, the “Perfect Storm” that is a shortage of workers is only going to make it more difficult. It is also highly likely you’ll even begin to see a rise in “theft” of good employees by competitors. Don’t let another ten years slip by, hoping the industry will correct itself. The trends from the past ten years indicate the time for a proactive hiring strategy is now. Contact Ag 1 Source today. We can help you overcome national trends in the labor market now and in the future.