Seed World

Best Foot Forward


Attract top talent in a tight market with a well-considered recruitment plan. Part three of a three-part series on employee recruitment and retention

Job recruiting has evolved beyond the newspaper job ad and paper resume. Today, companies and job seekers have an abundance of information at their fingertips. From social media and Internet job boards to recruitment firms, the broad scope of recruiting possibilities is endless. With so many options available to companies, it may be hard to pinpoint where to best focus company efforts and resources.

According to Eric Spell, president of, a supplier of human resource services to the agriculture, food, natural services and biotechnology industries, a haphazard approach to recruiting and the use of social media is worse than no plan at all.  Spell says, in today’s tight job market, it’s key to have an employer branding strategy and well-considered recruitment plan for any type of recruitment activities, from social media to college recruitment fairs. Outdated or generic social media and website content can be damaging to an employer’s brand and may cause prospective employees to think twice about joining that company.

The Internet has changed the hiring process for many companies, and it’s also changed the way people access information about potential employers and prospective jobs.  In the past year, Spell says he’s observed a 21 percent increase in applicants within the database.  “With the United States economy where it is and agriculture getting so much press, it is creating more traffic and interest in the industry and the jobs it offers,” he says.

Within the seed industry, Spell says short-term and long-term strategies are key to the continued success of a company. Presently, plant breeders are in demand, and if a company doesn’t stand out, then it will fall behind the pack in fulfilling recruitment needs, says Spell. “In the short term, seed companies should focus on employee retention, and long term they need to devise a recruitment plan and consider international recruitment in conjunction with college campus job fairs and other efforts.”

“In the short term, seed companies should focus on employee retention, and long term they need to devise a recruitment plan and consider international recruitment in conjunction with college campus job fairs and other efforts.”
— Eric Spell

Rethink the Booth
Today, agriculture graduates have a 100 percent placement rate—with no slowdown in demand anticipated. In the past, a company’s recruitment efforts may have begun and ended with showing up at a college campus with a booth and students would seek the company out. In today’s world, that is not a viable plan. According to Spell, companies must formulate a campus recruiting strategy and put their best foot forward.  When it comes to college recruitment, Spell suggests companies focus on three key areas:

• Successful internship programs that deliver excellent work experiences for students.

• Reaching out to, and remaining in touch with, key college administrators and faculty.

• Ensuring that an outgoing, vibrant personality attends college recruitment efforts.

Having a recent graduate represent a company goes a long way in the minds of students. “Many times companies feel they need to bring the owner or senior management, these aren’t always the best people to bring. Bringing vibrant, outgoing and knowledgeable people who can represent the company well is sometimes the best bet,” says Spell.

Denneal Jamison-McClung, associate director of the UC Davis Biotechnology Program, agrees that a good relationship between industry and academic institutions can benefit students as well as businesses.  The program works with companies that are looking for undergraduate- and graduate-level researchers to fill various positions in life science industries, including the seed industry.

“Our industry partners typically want to avoid the anonymity of the traditional career fair resume piles and ask us for help in identifying students and recent graduates that fit well with advertised positions.  We have found that industry participation in our internship program for Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology Program doctoral students has been the most effective win-win recruitment tool.  The undergraduate biotechnology major also has an internship component.  Internships are a great way for companies to test-drive potential hires,” says Jamison-McClung.

Latham Hi-Tech Seeds is one company that is reaping the rewards of successful college recruitment. Since 2005, the company has attended the Iowa State University career day, and is now operating a flourishing internship program.  “Our best recruitment tool has been the references from our previous interns,” says Shannon Latham, vice president of Latham. “They are interviewing us as much as we’re interviewing them. It’s a tight market out there for those new grads, and we want the cream of the crop. Setting up successful mentorship programs has been a win-win situation for the company and the interns, with the students obtaining valuable work experience and the company ensuring the student fits within the culture of organization.”

Social Media Status
The evidence is mounting: in a one-hour period, the average person spends approximately 22 percent of his or her time on social networking sites. In North America, 78.9 percent of the population is online, and Facebook has exceeded one billion active users. Based on these statistics, companies today can’t afford to remain in the dark when it comes to social media and its benefits when recruiting new talent. For example, a company can post a job for free on LinkedIn and use its Talent Advantage, which offers exclusive tools for recruiters.

Facebook also allows free job postings in the marketplace. By posting a Facebook advertisement a company can target specific markets or audiences. Twitter can be a powerful tool for small-scale companies or recruiters to get an edge on the competition.

Spell says although agriculture tends to be guarded when it comes to adopting new technology, the industry can’t afford to sit back and do nothing in terms of social media. “Many companies have adopted social media and have done a good job with it, but the ones who haven’t still have time to catch up, but not too much,” he says. He cautions companies that are employing an external party to update their social media tactics to ensure that the external partners are well versed on the day-to-day operations of the company and to provide meaningful information rather than generic content.


Having a recent graduate represent a company goes a long way in the minds of students. 

Photo courtesy of

Retention is Essential
Employee turnover costs companies time and money. Offering incentives is essential in recruiting and retaining top employees. According to Spell, those incentives don’t have to be financial—companies that offer flexible work environments are attractive to prospective employees. “Creativity is key. Find out what really matters to your employees and acknowledge it,” says Spell.

Workplace flexibility has allowed Latham Hi-Tech Seeds to be successful in its recruitment efforts in the competitive climate of the rural market. The company uses technology to its advantage, allowing Latham to hire the
best person for the job based on skill set rather than geography. “In order to get the skills we need, we’ve had to look at some non-traditional ways of filling those positions—we allow people to work from home, and we opened an office in central Iowa because there were three employees there and we wanted their skills,” says Latham. Employees’ roles are also not defined by traditional nine to five hours, says Latham, and “family comes first.” “Companies can no longer begin and end the day by balancing their check books. They have to let their people have work-life balance,” she says.

According to a survey of 76 agribusiness companies in’s 2012–2013 U.S. Agribusiness HR Review, the number of companies that feel the need for a flexible work environment has risen from 26 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2012. Jamison-McClung says that companies should consider a flexible work environment, especially when considering grads at the doctorate level. “Many of these graduates have families, and companies with family-wise policies, such as flexible work arrangements, cost-effective medical benefits and family leave policies, are very attractive to these grads. Quality of life is definitely a concern for students that I counsel—when considering jobs, many are as interested in maintaining a healthy work-life balance as they are in salary, benefits and job title,” she says.

Some examples of ways companies can attract and retain top employees in this tight job market include the following:

• Company performance-based incentives

• Unique offerings

• Flexible work options

• An investment in training/mentorship of 25- to 35-year-olds to prepare them for leadership roles

With the average time to replace a position from four to 10 weeks, and given the continued demand for employees in agriculture, having a well-defined recruitment and retention strategy in place may make all the difference to a company’s efforts to attract and keep top talent and to its bottom line.

Jennifer Ewankiw

For valuable tips on recruiting and retention, visit agcareers.comFor more information on UC Davis’ Biotechnology Program, visit