Getting the most from a limited labour pool

Even without the additional uncertainty caused by Brexit, labour availability has been an issue of increasing concern for horticultural businesses across the UK for a number of years. In 2017, 59 per cent of growers failed to secure the seasonal labour they required, resulting in un-harvested crops, increased employment costs and wages, and delayed investment decisions.

AHDB Horticulture recently held a series of Labour Efficiency Workshops across the country to share work on getting the best performance from workers, covering areas such as recruitment, induction, coaching and producing ‘champion’ workers; those who perform best and gave the highest output. Led by consultant Chris Rose with help from AHDB staff, the workshops were very popular, with the one Lincolnshire event in Spalding attracting attendees from as far afield as Lichfield and Oxford.

Chris began by pointing out the ability of all employees, particularly those picking or packing fruit or veg, to fulfil their potential is largely dependent on how they are coached and managed, and that this can begin even before they set foot on the farm. With a general feeling across the industry that not only is it becoming harder to recruit and retain workers, but that in many cases the calibre of worker is not as good in the past, getting the best out of the people you do have is crucial, and supervisory roles are often vital in achieving this.

“A lot of what they become is determined by what we achieve in developing them,” stressed Chris. “I am very keen on looking at the role of the supervisor as a coach, rather than just a policeman. You will never get the best out of people who wish they weren’t there.” Consequently, having supervisors who can combine empathy and a sense of fun with the ability to train and enforce the necessary standards is important.

“One of the traits of a champion supervisor is that they are not judgemental,” he continued. “You need to avoid pre-judging people or you will put less effort into developing them and as we have less labour available, we need to have a higher hit rate at making them champions.”

In fact it was agreed by everyone at the workshop that having good supervisors makes a huge difference in productivity. The best supervisors sort problems out as they arise and therefore tend not to need to discipline people. However good supervisors are also in demand in other industries and so farms often need to build supervisors skills too.

“To grow our workers we try to help people to reach their full potential,” pointed out Chris. “Anything which prevents this is interference, including crop, weather, packaging and management. As a supervisor you can be the interference, but managers should try and manage out interference; keep out of things that are going alright.”

Another consideration is to ensure that training and induction of staff doesn’t teach bad habits which once ingrained can be hard to break, and that training by doing is always more effective than simply being told something.

“Only a relatively small part of what we learn comes from what we hear, but it does vary according to each person,” added Chris. “It’s easy to forget that and it doesn’t matter how good your presentation is. The speed that someone learns a new skill isn’t an indicator of how good they are going to be and the method gets ingrained by repetition – the body is physically laying down protein pathways in the brain. It takes time to make those pathways, so we have to make sure that they are right to avoid teaching bad habits.

“We should be setting out our expectations right from induction. For example, ‘We are going to train you well, and we expect you to do the job correctly.’ In my experience most people appreciate and respect that approach, although it is challenging if you have a large turnover of people and tasks obviously vary in their complexity.”

It is also important that your staff are taught what they need to actually be productive. It is not unusual for the best pickers or packers to have developed effective techniques which may be different from the textbook version of a procedure – for example picking more than one fruit in one hand at once, and growers need to bear this in mind when training newcomers.

“Teach people how the best pickers do it, which may not be the textbook way,” suggests Chris. “Quality is important, but there has to be a balance between quality and productivity and there is nothing wrong with teaching habits which help productivity; you have to teach people the skills they need to achieve commercial standards.”

For newcomers and even returning workers at the start of a season, there is often a physical need for bodies to become accustomed to 8-10 hour shifts of physical work. “Although weather patterns mean that we often need to be operating at full capacity, it is worth looking at your cropping and work profile to see if you can have a more gentle start, rather than being flat out from the very beginning,” suggests Chris.

The key to success in communication, which is often a challenge in any business, is having some mechanism to check that the original message and intent has been understood. This can be particularly important when relying on translators or supervisors to pass on key messages. Learning even just a few words of the appropriate language can go a long way to building trust, while the use of video to provide key information and demonstrate techniques is now easy to use and has the benefit of being repeatable. Keeping supervisors and gangs together can also go a long way to building trust and encouraging empathy, although this is obviously much harder when businesses use agency labour.

Chris agreed that a reliance on agency labour makes it hard to implement best practice in terms of coaching and building skills in individuals. Although acknowledging that it is not always easy, he suggests; “if you need agency labour, try to build a relationship with the provider and the workers, so that you become a ‘preferred employer.’”

As labour has become harder to obtain, the price paid by most growers has risen, leading fruit grower and chair of the NFU Horticulture and Potatoes Board Ali Capper, to recently assert that horticulture is now a living wage, rather than a minimum wage industry.

“Labour is a massive cost and we need to get the best out of people to get the necessary productivity from that investment,” Chris pointed out. “In a scenario where we are short of labour we owe it to ourselves to get the most out of everyone. If we want responsible staff then we have to hand over some responsibility.” Respect and trust are linked and Chris stressed that you need to show respect in order to win it from others, but that the rewards of being a trusted employer may go beyond day-to-day performance and help with staff retention, recruitment and getting workers to return in subsequent seasons.

Another issue with the rise in horticultural wages has been that many seasonal workers who may come to the UK with a specific earnings target in mind are now reaching that target earlier in the season, leaving many growers short of workers later in the year. “The challenge is to understand what motivates each individual,” continued Chris. “If people have got a goal which involves money, then tap into that. For example, you could consider an end of contract bonus to those who stay until the end of the season.” However, it is wrong to assume that monetary reward is the key motivation and, ultimately, people have to motivate themselves. “If we fall into the trap of assuming that the people below us in the business are only motivated by money, why do other factors matter?” he pointed out.

Throughout the day there was plenty of interaction and discussion, with some of the supervisors and managers present being able to contribute their own experiences of working up from picking and packing in a range of businesses. There was also plenty of discussion about the political and historical factors which have led to the current labour situation, with several attendees feeling that skill levels were falling and pointing out that the people often put into supervisory positions are the only ones who speak the best English.

As the pool of available labour gets smaller, employment and productivity becomes more challenging, and the even if immigration policy becomes more helpful, experience around the world suggests that the general trend away from people wanting to do such work is only going to continue. Chris suggests businesses set specific actions and objectives that are measurable and timely. “Involve people on the farm,” he added. “Getting buy-in from people may require more effort, but there is a much greater likelihood of success.”