Retention strategies

The dairy industry competes directly with other industries that have a high demand for good labour. Retaining skilled employees is important to most businesses because high employee turnover results in a loss of knowledge and skills that can be expensive and difficult to replace.

Not only are there the costs of recruitment and training for the new entrant, there can be less obvious drains on the business such as down-time while the new people reach full performance and mistakes (made if the business is understaffed, the transition is not smooth or by the new person as they become familiar with the business).

Unless there is large pool of qualified, well-skilled people waiting to take available positions it is recommended that effort be placed on retaining your current people – including family members who work on the farm as well as paid employees.

A retention strategy is the things the farm business does to keep people employed on the farm for a reasonable period of time.

How can I improve the retention strategy for my farm?

People value having ‘challenging’ work – work that is stimulating, rewarding and safe, and where they are happy with their work-life balance and career path. People usually leave a place of employment when there is a better option available elsewhere or when they become dissatisfied with the work-life balance, working conditions, remuneration or management.

Many factors influence why people choose to stay in a job (see the graphic). Often people will stay working on a farm for the same reasons that first attracted them.

Why people choose to stay (source: Food, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Skills Advisory Council 2006)

This website gives practical advice to build farm capacity in all these areas. Rather than focus on one strategy, build a foundation for retention by choosing a number of factors that will encourage people to stay.

People who work on the farm are more likely to stay when they:

Other ways to show people they are valued include::

  • celebrate success – acknowledge significant milestones of the farm business or personal achievements (e.g. a barbecue or meal out);
  • allow time off for people to attend school or sporting events;
  • mark the passage of special days such as Christmas and Easter (e.g. with a small gift);
  • praise a job well done; or
  • offer social or team building opportunities.

The rewards of a supportive workplace

Alan and Bev have a proud record of retaining good employees on their farm. They milk 800 cows in the Goulburn Valley and have two permanent staff: Rick, who has been with them for 22 years, and John, who has been with them for 12 years. Both started as farm apprentices and have grown with the business. Bev says they are wonderful people who have put lots of enthusiasm into the farm and the local community. When Alan is asked what he thinks are the keys to long-term employment for Rick and John, he says there is probably not one single thing that he and Bev have done but lots of little things. For example, early on in their employment, they were given the opportunity to be trained in the areas in which they were most interested. Rick is the herd manager and has attended every course you could imagine on animal health and nutrition. In fact, Alan says, he isn’t even allowed to make a decision about the herd without Rick’s permission. He treats the cattle as his own and takes full responsibility for the reproduction program, milk quality and milking roster. John has diesel in his blood and won’t let anyone else drive machinery without a full lecture on what not to do. He has full responsibility for maintenance of all machinery and is in charge of feeding out and pasture renovation. The men are married with families and are accommodated on farm as part of their package. They have 4-5 weeks annual vacation and are able to have time off for sporting and family activities on a regular basis. Each week there is a staff meeting to discuss the main activities for the week and all have input into the decision-making.

Turning around a high staff turnover

Gerard and Michelle run a 1000-cow corporate farm. When they took over the management of the farm it had a history of high staff turnover and inefficient work practices. They saw the need to create a caring and enthusiastic culture and so set out to put in place a farm system that was predictable and simple to operate. They knew there would be some current employees who would find it difficult to adopt this culture and work in a team environment. Rather than move these people on, Gerard tried to help them see the benefits of working together as a team. The first thing he did was introduce regular team meetings at the dairy every week to discuss the week’s activities. He also made sure that all staff had an opportunity to talk about the way things were done in order to set up a complete operating manual for the farm. This resulted in a set of simple guidelines for the routine tasks that made it easy for everyone to follow. It was not long before it became obvious who was going to adapt and who wasn’t. After 12 months, two of the staff had decided to move on and found new jobs. The rest of the team found that they were doing more work in less time because of the simplification and standardisation of tasks. Not only that, Gerard soon found that he could hand over responsibility to other staff with the confidence that it would be done well. It also gave the staff more responsibility and satisfaction that they were key members of the team. As part of the way of showing appreciation for their staff, Gerard and Michelle have had social evenings at such times as the end of silage or after the cows calved. They also include in these social events many of the key service providers such as tanker drivers, contractors and feed merchants. They also make sure they acknowledge personal events such as birthdays, addition of new family members and welcoming events for new staff.

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Exit interviews

People leave employment for various reasons. Having a good understanding of why people are leaving is important. Routinely conducting exit interviews enables an employee to talk candidly about how they see and feel about what happens on the farm, and therefore provides a great opportunity to review the strengths and weaknesses of multiple aspects of the retention strategy.

Providing references for past employees

When people leave your employment they may ask you to provide them with:

  • a simple statement of employment service (the name of the employee, their job title or role they performed and the dates of employment) or
  • a written or verbal reference (for example describing the person’s skills, how they performed and what personal attributes they brought to the job).

If you have agreed to provide a reference for someone, their prospective employers may contact you as part of the interview process to validate a candidate’s claims bout their skills and work experience.

Giving references for former employees

People who give references have a duty to both the past employee and the prospective employer. They need to give a balanced, thoughtful account that is in no way misleading or defamatory. To find out what a prospective employer may ask for in a reference go to Recruitment.