Seed World

Winning the Talent War

Gold king on board standing in the midst of falling chess

“It’s not what you sell; it’s who you hire.” In the commodity business, this phrase couldn’t be truer. Here you’ll discover strategies for attracting and retaining the best employees.

It’s an issue that’s not bound by industry or sector. Labor, finding great talent and keeping it, is arguably the foremost challenge companies face. Globally, labor markets in the large majority of mature economies tightened for the fifth year in a row, according to The Conference Board. 

In September, the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to a 50-year low at 3.5%, and the prior month saw 7.1 million job openings. 

To say that there’s a battle for talent is an understatement. It’s an all-out war.

Each year, there’s an estimated shortage of about 22,500 college graduates with expertise in food, agriculture, renewable resources or the environment, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture and seed science may get the short end of the stick when it comes to “sex” appeal compared to degrees in business, biological and biomedical sciences and engineering, which rank in the top eight bachelor’s degrees. … But it’s got appeal; it just needs a marketing shot in the arm.

The seed industry cannot rely solely on the traditional departments of agronomy, ag economics and plant and soil science for its recruitment efforts. It must cast a wider net and bring in those business students, those who studied biology, chemistry, engineering, data science and many others.

“As food and agribusiness firms position for an increasingly dynamic future, no investment is more important than the one they will make in their human talent,” says Jay Akridge, Purdue University provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity, and a former director for the Center for Food and Agricultural Business.

One McKinsey study reports that the best 20% of managers in operational roles raised productivity by more than 40% compared to average performers, while the best 20% in general management roles raised profitability by 49% over the average manager.

It really is a “war for talent.”

There’s a definite supply and demand imbalance. The good news is the pipeline for talent is becoming more diverse in every way — more women, more underrepresented minorities, more graduates from urban and suburban backgrounds — all graduating from a broader set of institutions and programs.

Akridge says the seed industry must embrace this diversity going forward.

Why “Who” Trumps “What”

The need for talent is nearly always “now,” adds Pete Hammett, owner of Hammett Consulting and a core contributor to programming offered by Purdue’s Center for Food and Agricultural Business.

Talent shouldn’t be left just to human resources.

“Everyone in the company should be a talent scout,” Hammett says.

Hiring on skill is not enough; companies need to hire on character. The seed industry, like it or not, is a commodity business and while pricing matters to farmers, you’ve got to have talent with character, courage and critical thinking.

Surveys from Purdue show industry seeks employees with strong interpersonal communications skills, critical thinking skills, cultural/gender awareness and a knowledge of business, among others.

Attracting Top Talent

Diana Coker of HR Digest writes: “Job opportunities are not enough to attract talented and skilled employees to a company. Aside from creating job openings, your company should also have an excellent talent management strategy to attract the highest talent available in the industry. When a company places talent management as a priority, it creates a high-profile employer brand capable of attracting potential talents. Recruiting top-notched talents directly contribute to the overall business performance and productivity.”

To start, you’ve got to have a competitive benefits package — it’s foundational to a strong talent management strategy. In fact, 78% of workers base their acceptance or rejection of a job offer in part on the benefits package, according to Unum’s 2015 Benefits Buyers Study.

For company executives who might not have the ability to offer a luxury benefits package, this will require you to get creative. Gusto, a payroll and benefits platform that services more than 100,000 businesses, lists 17 perks that can help round out your benefits package.

  • Flexible access to emergency funds
  • Workers’ compensation
  • HSAs and FSAs
  • QSEHRAs (qualified small employer health reimbursement arrangement)
  • 401(k) plans
  • Identity theft protection
  • Student loan assistance
  • Flexible work options
  • Perks for families
  • Volunteer time
  • Seasonal activities
  • Office environment
  • Peer recognition
  • Health and wellness
  • Career development opportunities
  • Free snacks 
  • Employee discounts, rewards and freebies.

Additionally, high performing employees are looking for organizations that will invest in their personal growth as leaders (as noted by career development opportunities above). Professional development can be an area where you explore creativity as well.

This can range from simply offering a company subscription to Audible or to further reading and/or skill development to certificate courses offered by universities. It might also come in the form of traveling to conferences to be engaged in the bigger issues impacting not just your business but the broader industry. Maybe there’s an opportunity for a mentor-mentee program to connect new talent with leaders in the company.

Self-provision of learning and development will remain important to some businesses, but even these are likely to draw on the myriad of professional development programs available from universities and other providers.

Once that recruit says “yes,” you’ve got to work to keep them.

Keeping the Best

Employee retention is critical to company success, and there are few strategies you can deploy to increase engagement and retention.

First, a well-structured onboarding program increases the chances of employee retention in a company. On the long run, it will save the company funds initially spent on recruitment and performance management.

Meanwhile, building a culture and climate where employees want to be is an integral role of those in leadership. Leaders must figure out how to create a culture that feeds employee passions and a climate where women and minorities can thrive. They must address dual career situations and bring aboard talented individuals who don’t have backgrounds in agriculture.

Furthermore, talented individuals seek meaningful work. While millennials are known to qualify job opportunities on this, nearly everyone benefits. 

According to Blake Allen, an associate professor at Purdue, meaning is a fundamental component of well-being. Meaningful work correlates with greater mental health and life satisfaction.

Allen shares that those who feel valued at work also report higher job satisfaction and are more likely to report feeling and living a calling. He shows that research is beginning to indicate that meaningful work may also buffer the negative impacts of stress, depression and other health risk behaviors.

The good news: it’s an easy sell for those working in the seed industry, “we’re helping to feed the world, save the environment, and increase farm profitability.”

Beyond meaning, there needs to be an opportunity for advancement. Every talented employee seeks to attain a path of continuous professional and career growth. When they find this possible in any organization, they are compelled to stay and develop their skill there. Therefore, every company that seeks to retain top talent within their ranks needs to create such a path of professional growth for its employees. 

An important part of retaining talent is assessing, coaching and rewarding performance. That includes financial incentives, but a changing workforce and changing work have made non-financial recognition and assessing and rewarding team performance even more important than in the past.

Meanwhile, technology has enabled the workforce to be more distributed, and talent strategy must acknowledge and address generational differences. Finding ways to coach and mentor in real time will be important given the pace of change in the food and agribusiness markets, and the increasingly fluid nature of talent.

When it comes to talent management, the path you pursue is as individual as the shoes you put on your own feet. Nonetheless, it sets the pace and tone for the day and the many days ahead. How you develop intentional, deliberate strategies to identify, retain, cultivate and advance high-potential talent will have a major impact on long-term success.