Report Synopsis

People Skills: The Biggest Challenge Facing Irish Agriculture

John Buckley

The Irish dairy industry is entering into a period of rapid change due to the abolition of milk quotas. Nationally, milk production will increase, with an extra 200,000 cows expected to be milked by 2020. As Irish farms continue to grow, so does the need for talented employees. Therefore, good people management practices are critical to raising productivity and for adding value to the dairy industry. For farmers who have built up a strong business over many years and largely through working on their own, it will be difficult to change the mind-set to sharing power and giving responsibility to others. There is a real worry that farmers will burn out in this new era unless they effectively upskill on good people management skills. The industry must realise that it has to invest in people and realise that this is a long-term project.

“It takes two years to build a farm, it takes ten years to build the capacity in a person to run that farm” – (Interview -Stuart Taylor NZ)

The objective of this report is to provide advice and knowledge to farmers looking to attract and retain staff. The study consisted of travelling to nine countries on four continents visiting farmers, farm consultants and industry leaders the length and breadth of each country. How can Irish farmers become the employer-of-choice for their young people through the acquiring of people management skills, which farmers throughout the world regard as necessary? We are world class at producing quality milk, why would we not strive to be world class employers and provide world class work places as well?

The role of a dairy farmer has changed over time. The physical work element has fallen significantly on the list of priorities, with farmers now needing to show more leadership and business skills.

“We think we milk cows, no we actually manage people” – (Interview-Colin Glass)

To begin, a detailed analysis of the farm system and the people management skills of the farmer is necessary before expansion. All solutions need to be viable and profitable along with providing an attractive lifestyle to all involved. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Farmers need to understand the position that needs to be filled to better enable certain skill sets to be targeted and to set clear expectations of the new staff member, therefore, resulting in a clear plan with no grey areas going forward. People Skills: The Biggest Challenge Facing Irish Agriculture John Buckley Page 3 of 40

Technology is constantly evolving and is replacing much of the world’s workforce. It has the ability to make communication much easier and simpler and this can make a farm work more efficient and productive.

Today staff want flexibility; they want routine, rostered time off with a fair and competitive remuneration. They want to be treated with respect, they want to learn, be part of something bigger and all within a positive and progressive atmosphere. Farmers should actively seek to understand an employee's short, medium and long term goals and in turn help their employees achieve these goals through their work. One of the big learnings from the author’s travels is that bonuses are only a short term motivator, and operating bonuses will lead to an increased administration burden and become anticipated.

“Paying top dollar doesn’t automatically attract skilled people who are committed to helping you reach your farm business objectives – (Lynn Perry, Integrity Human Resources Services, Canada)

While staff turnover is inevitable, the ability to retain staff is one of the most underrated attributes of many successful businesses. Retaining quality people is about ensuring good employees stay in your business because they have interesting and rewarding jobs. It costs double a person’s salary to replace a member of staff therefore it is cheaper to invest in good people rather than replace. Remember, if an employee fails, or makes a mistake, it is typically the employer’s fault. Either the employee was mis-trained or the communication was not clear.

Consistently underperforming or incompetent employees need to be removed immediately. These ‘bad eggs’ will have a negative impact on the culture and on staff morale. Farmers will need to know when an employee needs support to help them improve their performance, and when that employee needs to be dismissed. This requires leadership and a good understanding of people.

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