Richard Stup, Cornell University Extension agricultural workforce specialist, explained the how and why of employee onboarding during the 2019 Operations Managers Conference, sponsored by PRO-DAIRY and the Northeast Dairy Producers Association.
Onboarding goes beyond the new employee orientation, Stup said, and focuses instead on an extended period when a new hire is being trained on the job and is acclimating to the workplace environment. The goal is to create a workforce that is “safe, productive and engaged from day one,” and remains that way for the long term. “If we want to get that retention benefit, we need to focus on new employees as people.”
The first day on the job is all about laying the foundation and introducing the employee to your farm. Your mission statement, organizational chart and an overview of the facilities are covered, as well as the job description, a work agreement and time sheet and payroll information. Safety and health concerns and training, customized to your specific needs – equipment, manure storage, silos, animal handling, chemical storage – are implemented. Benefits, including housing orientation if housing is provided, are all a part of the comprehensive introduction to the farm.
The owner needs to be involved in day one, along with any direct supervisor, and those who will lead the onboarding process for the employee. Good trainers, who know how to do their jobs correctly and are also skilled at teaching people, are needed throughout the process and are an integral part of the onboarding team.
Rather than cram all this information into a day or two of orientation and then let the employee sink or swim on their own, onboarding breaks learning into manageable segments, and it doesn’t stop until the employee has been at work for one month, or more if the job is complex. Onboarding includes all of the required legal paperwork and safety training, but goes beyond to build meaningful relationships, providing a time period where new employees are immersed not only into their job, but into the farm community.
Onboarding encompasses four components: compliance, clarification, culture and connections. Employees must know how to do the job procedurally and comply with their training. Expectations and details of the job must be clarified and understood. The values and norms of your business, which employees are expected to uphold, create the culture. The teamwork needed for the farm to run smoothly creates connections.
To bring a new hire successfully into the organization, standard operating procedures (SOPs) must be in place for all processes. Someone must be able to explain and demonstrate the SOPs.
“Tell, show, do, review,” Stup said. “People learn in different ways,” and having patience, as well as “giving feedback on performance,” is the number one priority of those training and supervising new employees.
Evaluation is an important part of the process. The focus is on assisting the employee to understand the task and execute it correctly every time. Clear goals need to be targeted. Feedback should be specific, frequently given by the appropriate supervisor or trainer, and relevant to an employee’s job performance. Praise for correctly doing the job reinforces employee confidence and demonstrates the importance placed on doing tasks properly.
Integrating onboarding into your farm’s operation requires a commitment to developing employees who are engaged in your farm and not just working for a paycheck. Onboarding results in employees who are invested in the mission and the success of your business, are valued team members and want to work with you to achieve your farm’s goals.
Turnover is reduced when employees are treated as individuals, feel appreciated and are given the tools they need to do the job correctly. Properly trained employees are more productive. Injuries are reduced when employees are trained, procedures are followed and a commitment to a safe working environment is actively promoted. Developing a culture of respect, providing training and supervision, and empowering employees to do their best work is the basis of onboarding.
Overall, the labor force is shrinking, and dairies are going to be competing for available workers, Stup cautioned. Populations of unauthorized immigrants are shrinking in places like New York, where the dairy industry relies on this workforce. Fewer young Mexicans, as well as Guatemalans, will be seeking work in the U.S., as both of these countries now have relatively stable populations, without an excess population of younger generations. The economy in these countries is almost fully developed, and people no longer need to leave to find adequate employment.
Since the recession a decade ago, the unemployment level in the U.S. has decreased as the economy has grown. There are now more job openings than there are job seekers. Asia and Africa have growing populations, so more workers will be coming from these regions. And while technology will decrease the need for laborers to some degree, there will always be a need for people.
“We need to be highly effective in our businesses and able to onboard people from a lot of different backgrounds,” Stup said.
No matter where your employees come from, the culture of your farm is what will make them want to stay and perform to the best of their abilities.
“Culture matters,” Stup said. Onboarding is all about “helping [employees] to find their place where they can be effective.”
Developing employee commitment to your farm through onboarding is a tool for increasing employee effectiveness, engagement and productivity. While the basics of onboarding remain the same no matter where they are used, “you’ll have to customize it for your farm,” Stup said. “Onboarding works. The research bears it out.”
Further information on employee onboarding can be found through New York’s Ag Workforce Development Council.
Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food system topics.