It seems strange that the world population is growing, the number of students is increasing – while the shortage of personnel in the “largest industry of mankind” is growing. We asked HR experts Laura Hill, Executive Recruiter at Pinnacle Recruitment Services, Geoff Lucas, Managing Director of The Lucas Group and Max MacGillivray, MD @ Redfox Executive Selection about their perspective on future HR.
The Fruit World: How easy/difficult is it at the moment to find the right people for your customers or your business?
Laura Hill: The market is rich with talent in the agriculture industries in the Central Valley of California, however as the industry continues to grow and add new technologies, it has become evident that the specialty of candidates is becoming more important. Specifically, the areas of quality control, lean manufacturing and process solutions are increasingly difficult to find top talent as these are often fairly new roles within out organizations. More traditional roles such as agronomist and farm manager candidates are fairly easy to locate, however in these scenarios everyone is working and thus most companies are having to lure talent to their firms away from their competition.
Geoff Lucas: It is a candidate short market. There is a great demand for technically qualified people particularly in regional areas – where there are challenges for accommodation and meaningful employment for partners it will always be difficult. The shortage of trained and well qualified people has an impact in some regions because there has been a shortage of graduates through universities in Australia for a number of years now. Therefore, in regional areas, many companies are paying a premium to attract people for those kinds of positions. Key positions in demand at present are agricultural graduates, middle management in the horticultural sector who have technical and leadership skills, and also those with strong horticultural science knowledge.
Max MacGillivray: Currently in the International Fresh Produce sectors, we have no issue gaining the recruitment work from our clients…the issue is sourcing the caliber of candidates required.
The Fruit World: What are the reasons?
Max MacGillivray: There are a number of reasons for this but the main one is the lack of individuals coming into the farming/fresh sectors through the recognized universities and colleges and then coming through the “system”. The sector is highly enjoyable as we all know, but it is hard work with sometimes long hours to achieve the career progression you will want. With the changes we are seeing in society, some individuals do not want to work like those previously and they want a different lifestyle…to enjoy their time more and enjoy experiences more than working within one business for a large portion of the working week ongoing. But there are good people out there. They are motivated and keen to progress. For a company to attract these individuals the company has also to be motivated and have a great cultural. If they don’t, these industry shaping individuals will not join them. Take a look at your own website as that is the “shop window” of your business and take a look at your competitors. Do you think you are more attractive to work with than another business? We are also seeing large “disrupters” taking key individuals away from normal sectors. The growth in medical marijuana in North America has attracted a number of key growers and associated individuals away from other protected cropping areas such as Holland and even Australia. So we have to take that into account as well and another reason to make sure your business is as attractive as possible to work for.
Geoff Lucas: A lack of forward planning from an overall industry perspective. The growth demands of the ag and hort industries has been overlooked, the fact there would be more people needed on the ground in some of the major regions. There has been limited involvement from the government in promoting agriculture and horticulture as a career of choice, therefore it’s not the first career path people take when considering opportunities from school. That demand has been filled in Australia by the backpacker / holiday visa regime that has been put in place for a number of years. As a result, these people are filling the jobs that school leavers would normally undertake. There needs to be a greater emphasis on promoting agriculture and horticultural careers as a career of first choice. There has been an increase in enrolments in agriculture in the last 2 years at a graduate level but I think it’s going to be many more years before the shortage will be made up, considering the demand for tertiary qualified people at production level is significant, and certainly in 2016/17 there were far less people graduating then the demand from the industry in Australia.”
The Fruit World: Everybody talks about mechanization at the farm, in post-harvest, in logistics, in retail. What do you expect to happen?
Laura Hill: Mechanization on the farm is an ever increasing demand in our market and concern for farmers and food processors alike. I separate those two because many of our smaller farms in California are part of co-ops or sell their produce to other larger processing and retail centers, however for both automation is a top concern. There are a number of factors as to why, however one of the most evident is the continued rising wages in California. The state has recently mandated a five year wage increase plan that now eliminated the agriculture exemptiona we currently had. This increase in labor costs is pushing farmers to automate harvesting. Crops like blueberries and table grapes which are traditionally hand harvested are being impacted the greatest.
The struggle between quality and volume vs. automation in harvesting is a constant concern which we have still not thoroughly resolved. On the packing and processing side, our industry has become highly atomized which has driven down labor cost significantly. A packing plant that used to employ 100 workers is now likely operating with half that number. This trend is driving the technology careers new to agriculture such as automation experts, lean manufacturing, line mechanics and other roles that aid in the high speed manufacturing process. The skills gap in the industry in the Central valley of CA is feeling the pinch in these areas.
It will be an interesting 3-5 years to watch how these trends materialize and create new tech savvy careers for individuals. Luckily, secondary education has become more affordable and our younger generations are increasingly more tech savvy, however many of them do not see the agriculture industry as an attractive place to begin their careers. I predict, that shifting our focus to attract a new generation of workers will be the core focus five years from now.
Geoff Lucas: Mechanisation at farm level is inevitable, as the size and opportunities to implement new tech in horticulture come to the forefront, particularly mechanisation on farm. Far greater time is spent on finding opportunities to reduce manual labour, especially in picking, pruning, those types of areas. In post-harvest again, there is a demand for greater mechanisation but most of that is going to be taken up in robotics or artificial intelligence, mostly in terms of product sorting. In logistics and retail the time from picking to the consumer will be shortened, there will be far greater emphasis on infield processing and packing. The best example for that is Staycrisp lettuces which are bagged and boxed in the field ready for transport. I see the emphasis in the future in terms of technology will be focused on management and resources, especially in the use of control measures for irrigation, fertigation, pesticide and disease management, then mechanisation will also improve overall yield and opportunities so remote measurement of plant health and greater use of ultra violet and infrared imaging systems to monitor plant health will be something commonly used going forward. The harvesting of crops that are traditionally harvested with manual labour is certainly going to be a growth opportunity for mechanisation. The best example I can give is the effort spent on finding a suitable harvesting machine to take the manual labour away from harvesting asparagus. The future in terms of mechanisation is also looking at opportunities for a different approach to production. In Australia for example, juicing oranges being harvested specifically for juice, Jemalong Citrus operation are primarily harvesting citrus mechanically for juice, doing this with a machine not dissimilar to a grape harvester.”
Max MacGillivray: Now! A number of industry leaders in the UK alone have not see the rate of progression we are experiencing in a generation. We are on the cusp of self-driving tractors through to 24/7 automated pickers for the likes of glasshouse cropping. With issues that we have in the UK with the likes of Brexit and the associated labor issues, the amount of investment that is going into technology is at a huge pace. It is the future and it will revolutionize the sectors and it is here now.