Monday, August 27, 2012

Dairying With Gen Y

We can take this whole generation y & x thing a bit far. The characteristics that the researchers give us about the motivation and focus of particular generations are generalisations. There will be many members of Y-generation who don’t display any of the traits they are supposed to have. But when you read the list of traits and attributes I can’t help but believe them to be true.

So why bother with Gen Y?

Firstly, we have no choice. Someone needs to work and take over the family farms. If they don’t, then the farms will no doubt be run by corporate farmers, or even foreign investors (shock, horror). Even then they will need to employ Gen y to work on the farms anyway.

Secondly; the agricultural sector is going to get bigger over time as the global demand for food increases. Farmers are going to need more staff. Farmers are struggling to attract adequate numbers of staff currently.

Thirdly; y-generation are our children and grandchildren. We created them and really made them the way they are. So the least we can do is employ them, and the generation following gen Y will probably be worse!

I used the word “worse” in the last sentence, that implies that a gen y person is less productive or not as good as a previous generation. I don’t think that is the case, they are just different.

There needs to be a bit of movement from both sides. Gen y need to learn that the real world is a bit brutal and results count. Lofty ideals won’t get anyone anywhere, but the older generation need to move as well and they need to change the way they run their businesses and conduct themselves to suit the differing attitudes and expectations. The farmer who is a man of few words with the “I’m the boss, now go and do this and then do that” approach is not going to work well in the future.

If we look at professional rugby. The coaching styles and cultures have changed from 20 years ago. I wonder if Laurie Mains, or Grizz Wylie would be successful coaches in today’s game. You never heard the term “player power” in the 80s or 90s.

How do we fit y-generation into agriculture and specifically the dairy industry?  

Well I don’t think it is too difficult, because the environment that gen y appreciates is one that all generations will benefit from.
The main characteristics of Generation Y are:
Relationships are important                                                        Work collaboratively
Hands on learning style                                                                 What to be treated as equal
Like encouragement                                                                      Like consensus
What to be “involved”                                                                   Regular promotion/progress
What responsibility

Essentially they want to be treated as a “work mate” not an “employee”, they want to work together to solve issues and reach a consensus. They want to be involved in the decision making process.

So the employer really needs to be committed to ensuring they foster a work culture that incorporates the above characteristics.

An employer with the right attitude and the following initiatives, are really all that is required to make farming gen-y friendly.

  • Give staff responsibility.
  • Include the whole team in weekly meetings
  • Allow staff to teach others
  • Reduce hours of work.
One thing the dairy industry is able to offer, is fast progression. A new comer to the dairy industry can be a herd manager in two years, if they have the willingness to learn.
Even the newest employee can be given responsibility. Give them the job of keeping the teat sprayer filled or the cowshed walls clean. These are very simple jobs, but they give that junior person a bit of an identity. Make someone the “electric fence monitor”. Give them a fence tester and make it their job to ensure the power does not drop below a certain level. When it does it’s their job to fix it or delegate it to be fixed. Train a staff member to treat sore feet, and then make sore feet their responsibility. You then find this employee starts taking an active interest in all things that effect sore feet, from the lanes/races to stones on the yard. Another good example is the effluent spreader, make it one employees job to be responsible for it being moved and set up correctly. Evan though everybody monitors it and moves it, this particular employee has overall responsibility for it and they teach the other staff how to operate it.
Of course whoever is in charge is still monitoring these things, but the employee feels like they have a special role or job.

Proper team meetings
Most farms already have team meetings, but I suspect these meetings take place in the tanker track standing up, and the boss says “this is what needs to be done, employee A do this, employee B do that”.
A formal meeting held once a week inside for a duration of 1-2 hours is what I’m talking about. They follow a regular structure and the employer or bosses role is to be a facilitator.
At these meetings the employees accounts for their particular responsibilities. The employee assigned to the “electric fence monitor” role, gets up and talks about where the shorts were last week, if any and outlines what the staff need to look out for or check. The person responsible for the effluent spreader does the same. It’s their job to pull up other employees on mistakes or improper technique etc, not the employer. Of course the employer can direct the employee on aspects they want them to talk about prior to the meeting.
Pasture management is another good example. The employer will already know prior to the meeting what their plan is, such as move cows onto a 15 day grazing round, shut up paddocks 7 and 8 for silage.
But the way to approach this is to facilitate a discussion amongst all the employees to reach your intended plan. The boss asks questions, “whats our average pasture cover?”, “how much are the cows eating currently?”, “how fast is the grass growing currently”. “well it looks like we’re growing more grass than we are eating”, “I wonder if we should shut up a few paddocks for silage?”; “what do you think?”. While this discussion is taking place, someone should be writing all the figures and doing the calculations on a white board. This allows every member to learn how the farm is run.
All these questions are to encourage the whole team to take part in the discussion. It also makes them feel like they are directly influencing the management decisions. By giving each team member areas that they are responsible for, you are giving them responsibility and significance. By conducting a meeting where everybody is involved in every aspect of the business, you are also training the staff and making them aware of all that goes on at every level. This is a benefit for the long term.

Staff become the trainers
They say, the best way to learn something is to teach it. Let the staff train each other. It makes the trainer feel important and engaged, the other staff are more likely to listen. It also forces the teacher to think about what they are teaching more.
Let’s say the person in charge of the effluent irrigator is the 2IC. Approach him about a week prior and let them know that you want them to conduct a training session on common mistakes people make when shifting the irrigator. Write down what you want them to cover and then leave it up to them. Of course the boss is present at the training session to add to the training and ensure everything is covered.
What is happening is you are engaging your team members to own a portion of the management of the farm. This gives them significance and engagement.
 This stuff already happens on a lot of farms. But it’s important to ensure these initiatives are not rushed and are given the same importance as, say milking the cows. These initiatives won’t work when everybody is rushing around trying to get everything done or the team is going from one fire to another, which brings me to my last point.

Reduced hours of work
My experience on a dairy farm is, you rush all day and at the end of it you have never done everything that you needed to. If a team have just worked a 70 hour week and they then get asked to prepare a training session on the effluent irrigator or how to operate the silage wagon “when you have a free moment”. The team members probably won’t be too keen to jump on board. If the team meetings are rushed because everyone knows that by sitting around talking for two hours, it means they will be home two hours later. Then they are not going to buy into all this.

The task of focusing on the team is just as important as feeding the cows or milking the cows. Dairy farmers are still operating in the Stone Age when it comes to human resources. What I’ve outlined above is not “way out” or radicle thinking it’s just what businesses in town have been doing for the last 20 years.

An owner operator dairy farmer, with an 800 cow farm will have an asset base of approximately 7-10 million dollars and a turnover of 2.1 million dollars a year, but they operate an HR policy in line with a fish n chip shop.

If dairy farmers want their views to be heard and respected by the New Zealand public and want young people to view farming as being a professional career, then they need to actually be professional. Their are many top operators out there in the industry but they are the exception.

To conclude; staffing on dairy farms is a huge issue now. Employing staff from the Philippines to fill the gaps is a band aid fix. It does not address the core issue, which are people don’t want to work on dairy farms. The y generation with their “extra” needs are not going to be any different.

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