Seed World

Fishing in the Labor Pool?

The bait doesn’t always have to be money. Get creative and think outside the box.

The United States’ labor pool is shrinking. Nearly every industry in America is facing a shortage of talent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more jobs available than there is talent to fill them.

However, the agricultural industry has a unique challenge on its hands. Most farms, seed companies and agribusinesses are located in the heart of rural America — far away from talent pools drawn to big-city amenities.

Randy Wilken

“Finding good people is a difficult task right now,” says Randy Wilken, president of ProHarvest Seeds. “In older generations, there has been a hesitancy to move to a different position, while millennials are willing and hoping to move to new places. As an employer, it gets difficult, because if I hire someone, I want them to stick around.”

So how are seed companies working to bring new talent into the mix?

The answer: by getting creative.

Instead of focusing on avenues such as job advertisement sites like or classified ads in papers, most seed companies are working on breaching different ways to attract talent to their ranks.

Even the college town of Champaign, Ill., the Illinois Crop Improvement Association still noticed that it needed to adapt their strategies to find new talent.

“We have to use a multi-pronged approach,” says Doug Miller, CEO of the Illinois Crop Improvement Association. “There’s around 57 or so different online job sites, and while we do advertise online, we also try to bring in agriculture students from local universities to our facilities for tours. We hand out applications to those who come in, and look for students who need internships to complete their program.”

Wilken has a similar approach. “In our experience, networking is the best path,” he says. “We really think ‘Who do I know? Do I know somebody who would fit this role?’ We’ve had good experiences with recruiting firms and online career sites, but it really takes a combination of different channels.”

Both Miller and Wilken agree that it takes a lot of word of mouth. Sometimes it’s effective, sometimes it’s not.

Latham Hi-Tech Seeds has an even different approach — letting some of their talent telecommute.

“More than half our employees work outside of our office,” says John Latham, president of Latham Hi-Tech Seeds. “We’re allowing people to live where they want to live, and we use programs like Skype and Teamviewer to work in teams. Today’s technology allows us to recruit and retain the talent we need.”

“Everyone is looking for a silver bullet on how to find people for their company,” Wilken says. “There isn’t just one way, though. You need to be flexible on how you recruit.”

Who Are They?

Now that we have some approaches on how to get talent into our companies, there’s an even better question to ask: who exactly is this talent we’re trying to bring in? Where do they come from, and what are their backgrounds?

John Latham

“There’s quite a different bit of talent to bring in,” says Latham. “You need people for marketing, accounting, sales and sales support.”

In seed testing, Miller says they look to attract people with an interest in life science.

“We like to have talent come in with a good biology background, and if they’ve done any crop judging through FFA, that’s a big plus, but not essential,” he says. “Finding registered seed technologists is a little more difficult, but we’re happy to work with our talent to get that certification.

“If they have an understanding of biology and they’re ready to learn, then we’re excited to have them.”

But does all of our talent need to come from agriculture backgrounds? Not necessarily.

“There’s always a question of comfort levels,” Wilken says. “It’s easier and more comfortable to hire someone from ag because they have an understanding of what’s taking place. However, it can be interesting to bring in someone from outside of agriculture to explain how and why we do things, because it gives both parties a different perspective.

“Historically, we tend to stick with talent with agriculture backgrounds,” he says.

Latham says it depends on the position. “It’s a mixture. Especially in sales, we have some people who have fallen into agriculture and decided they really enjoy it. Our goal is to try and attract people who think outside of the box.”

Miller says that while they receive many non-ag backgrounds, they also have people come in through different departments, such as horticulture.

“I like applicants that put on their resumes that they are good with plants and have a passion for plants,” he says. “That’s what brings our interest. In college we called physics and chemistry the ‘dead sciences.’

“And while they are excellent scientist’s people from the ‘dead sciences’ don’t have as much exposure to the variability, fragility and lack of predictability that can be found in living things. From forestry to marine biology, life science is a plus.”

Training Up

After finding new talent, be it entry-level or more experienced, talent has to go through training. Most training takes time, especially if talent comes from areas other than agriculture.

Doug Miller

Miller says it takes two to three years to train up a registered seed technologist into their ranks, while Wilken says an employee needs to be acclimated by sticking around about a year.

“Within the seed industry, it’s an annual cycle,” Wilken says. “A lot of our employees don’t do the same thing every day of the year. You have to make it through a whole cycle, because there’s different dynamics in July than there are in November or February — you need at least a year to learn the value of it.”

Latham says their initial training is only a few days long; however, he agrees that it can take a few months to get into the swing of things.

“We usually bring the new employee in to have a meal with the team,” Latham says. “Then, depending on the employee, it can be quite a few months depending on whether they’re in sales training or seed training. We try to help everyone hone in on their skills so that they can feel comfortable at their job.”

Another big challenge that seed companies face is training up an employee, only to have them leave. Occasionally, after spending time and effort to train talent to hit that perfect sweet spot, another company might come along and offer them more money to move.

“Sometimes companies are successful, sometimes companies aren’t successful,” Latham says. “We want to talk through it with our employees. A lot of times, the benefits of a family-owned business outweigh the benefits of a corporation.

“We’ve been very fortunate,” he continues. “We have two employees that have been at Latham Hi-Tech Seed for 40 years. Having new blood and new ideas and cornerstone employees provides us with a good mixture.”

Wilken says while having employees picked off can be a problem, you have to have confidence in yourself as a business and employer. “You always have to ask ‘Do I run that risk?’ We have to have confidence in our brand and company and realize that we’re creating a good culture. Sometimes we forget that it isn’t always about the money.”

Passion for What We Do

While it seems difficult to find good labor and talent willing to move, there’s still hope — the seed industry strives to provide a welcoming environment to all new talent that walks through their doors.

Miller wants new talent to know that the Illinois Crop Improvement Association offers a unique and rewarding career that’s essential; seed quality is essential to the success of a single farmer and the success of society as a whole.

“You can’t eat smartphones, you can’t eat steel,” Miller says. “You need agriculture and biological sciences to succeed.”

Latham wants to show that even after 70 years, Latham Hi-Tech Seeds is progressive and working every day to become more progressive.

“We’re looking for new ways to reach our customers by using technology in any way to try to connect with each other,” he says. “It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s a great career path to follow.”

By continuing to provide a place for people passionate about working in agriculture, the seed industry’s labor pool will never dry up.