I’m just back from VIV Asia. One overriding message that came across was the increase in income levels across the region. Of course, this is great for consumption; more money in the pocket means greater purchasing power and growing markets. 

The rising Asian middle class is referenced in almost every poultry industry outlook, but this expansion is not necessarily as beneficial as it sometimes portrayed. An increase in wealth and living standards can be a double-edged sword.

Tied to rising living standards comes not only a drift to cities, but higher expectations. In those economies that have long been termed “developed,” there are countless towns and villages that have either disappeared or are no longer economically viable. And there are once-valued jobs that, today, nobody really wants to do. The exodus from the countryside has clear implications for those industries that are based there. The developing world has been able to make the most of cheap and abundant labor, giving it an advantage over more developed economies, but as aspirations increase this will be ever less an option.

Greater mechanization will be one option, and certainly in Asia there is room to move in this direction, but the predicted labor shortages in the region’s industry will need to employ a number of approaches if they are not to face recruitment problems in the long term. While many farms and processing plants around the world are now run with far less labor than they once were, the poultry industry is yet to be labor free and completely mechanized, and perhaps it never should be. 

So what’s the answer to attract and retain staff? I have visited food-processing plants across three continents and some of them, I have to say, were hell on earth. Where a producer is the main source of employment for a local community, it certainly allows terms and conditions to be dictated. I remember visiting a fruit processing plant where the fruit was transported in water troughs. The water was constantly spilling from the high-level troughs, pouring down onto the poor chap that was employed to sweep water off the floor below. Hardly the most satisfying of jobs and I bet that, if something better arose, he would have taken it. 

A visit to some plants can really make you stop and count your blessings. 

On the other hand, I remember visiting a poultry processing plant where I would have almost been happy to eat my lunch from the floor! It was clean and bright, staff had flexible working hours, the buildings were relatively new. The birds were calm at unloading and, as importantly, the staff looked happy! 

Which is the most attractive environment? Which plant would you choose to work in?

Come to us!

So working conditions are clearly one aspect to staff retention. But there is more that can be done. Clear career paths and incentives certainly help to make any job more appealing, as does on-the-job training. In the UK, March sees National Apprentice Week. Apprenticeships are available across a wide range of industries and, for the poultry industry, they appear to be working. The British Poultry Council has announced that, for every advertised apprenticeship position in the poultry industry, there are 20 applicants. And this is not a case of any port in a storm during an economic downturn — employment in the UK is the one area that has held up well during the current economic troubles. 

There are apprentice programs across farms, hatcheries and processing, and apprentices receive both training and assessment on farm. There is a vocational framework to the schemes and apprentices receive a work-based diploma. Apprentices are salaried. If you want staff, particularly the best staff, simply offering a wage is increasingly less of an option. There needs to be more.

In a survey conducted by the Royal Agricultural Society of England, 60 percent of respondents judged that recruiting the right caliber of people was a "very important" issue facing the pig and poultry industries. In the same survey, the same classification was given to encouraging younger people into the industry by 54 percent of respondents.

There things that the agricultural sector can do. Take, for example, feed concern ABN, which has graduate schemes to encourage people into the sector. The Poultry Industry Programme is one such scheme, run in conjunction with the National Farmers Union and designed to help the next generation of poultry farmers build innovative and profitable businesses. It offers market insight for 20 young participants from a variety of backgrounds. 

AB Agri offers the Bright Crop scheme which has an emphasis on reaching school children. The company notes that pig and poultry producers and supply chain companies need to talk to pupils and careers advisers about how rewarding a career in the sector can be. 

Finite resource

No doubt there are other schemes around the world with similar approaches, but where they are not in operation, they probably ought to be soon. If we are all to become richer with rising living standards, then cheap, abundant labor will become a thing of the past.

Even if you are able to currently recruit enough workers, are they really the right kind? It is important to remember that rules and regulations are ever increasing, and trade barriers are coming down. What may seem like a crazy piece of legislation in a far off distant land may well find its way to your market eventually. Will your staff be able to handle it when it does arrive? Markets are already highly interconnected, and rules and regulations overseas can affect your business if you happen to be an exporter. Failure to implement change can result in a loss of market. Is your team up to the challenge?

So there are many reasons for investing in staff and training, not simply staff retention itself, but ultimately retention of markets. Any business is only as good as the people that work in it, and their ability to produce what the market demands. And if you can’t even attract workers through your doors ...