Thursday, November 30, 2023

Job market tension slowly easing but competition for staff remains

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Farmers are putting more effort into trying to make job offers more attractive.
The shortage of workers has nearly halved but more staff are still needed for this season as we head into the busy calving period.
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This article first appeared in our sister publication, Dairy Farmer.

The chronic staff shortage in the dairy industry has dropped from 4000 vacancies to around 2000-2500 as borders re-open in the post-pandemic world.

DairyNZ people manager Jane Muir said it is pleasing because job market tension is getting close to pre-pandemic levels.

As of mid-June, around 600 jobs were being advertised on FarmSource, mostly for dairy assistant roles. The fall in payout is also seeing some farmers think more carefully about whether they can afford that staff member as they look to tighten their costs.

Farmers are also doing a much better job in trying to make job offers more attractive and feedback suggests they are getting more interest from people.

“Everyone needs to understand what ‘competitive’ looks like, that is the most important part and secondly we need to make sure people are supported to present what the job is in a way that is accurate,” Muir said.

She said there has definitely been an attitude change in the industry, with farmers far more willing to call out job ads on social media platforms when they are problematic and may cast dairying in a negative light.

“There’s a lot more pushback.”

There is also more anecdotal evidence of New Zealanders applying for jobs. Muir said the challenging economic times mean some are viewing dairying as an industry where there is stability.

Muir credits some of this change to DairyNZ’s Great Futures in Dairying plan, which was launched in April and is designed to help the industry establish a more resilient long-term workforce plan.

It was outlined by No8HR’s Lee Astridge, who worked alongside DairyNZ to create the plan at its People Expos held across the country earlier this year.

DairyNZ has also created a job competitiveness calculator to help farmers understand what it will take to get their application to the employment start line. The tool went live on DairyNZ’s website on April 1. 

It looks at the implications of recruiting people from the same pool as all of the other sectors who are experiencing staffing shortages.

“This isn’t about what it will take to get the best employee ever; it’s about what it’s going to take to even be in the hunt against other sectors,” Astridge said.

The calculator asks employers what the terms of employment are in their job offer and helps the employer assess the competitiveness of the job offer by comparing it to similar jobs outside the dairy industry.

The results can guide the employer to make changes if required to make the job more competitive. 

Astridge also surveyed people within the target market to see what could attract them to dairying. On top of the list was good hourly rates followed by consistent Monday-to-Friday work. Location and distance to travel to the job were not the barriers she had thought they might be.

The survey also asked people how much an early start is worth in the dairy industry. Around 43% of those expected to be paid an extra $1000-$2000 for getting up early to milk cows, while 55% wanted $5000-$10,000.

Being a caring employer and offering career development opportunities are expected, especially the latter. It comes down to developing good individual relationships with people, Astridge said.

She pleaded for the dairy industry to do all it can to try to hold onto the staff it has.

It is going to take time. Dairy farmers will have to keep working hard on labour issues every year, elevating them to the same level of importance as animal health.

They have to, she said, “otherwise we don’t have businesses”.

For share farmers or contract milkers who employ staff, Astridge said farm owners have to realise that having adequate staff is not just a problem for the share farmer, it is a whole-farm problem.

“This is a real pinch point and it’s an industry issue.”

Astridge feared it could lead to some burning out and exiting the industry.

“Farm owners, please, these are business-to-business relationships and they have to work for everybody.”

It is not an impossible issue for the industry to overcome, she said.

There are plenty of farm owners in the industry who do not have staffing issues and have kept staff for three to 10 years.

“They are way past the start line. If they can do it, we can all do it.”

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