Team Building in the Great Resignation: How the Pork Industry Can Cultivate Quality Labor

“Acting your wage.” “Quiet quitting.” Even “quiet firing.” Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic popularized working from home, employees have formed a stronger, more decisive stance on what foot they’re prepared to set forward for their job. This and the shifting expectations of the workforce at large have led to a national labor force participation rate that, as of August 2022, remains stubbornly lower than that of February 2020. Regardless, however, of where one stands on the situation and the current buzzwords concerning employment, the fact of the matter is that the modern workplace is changing. It is the job of an employer to keep up with and determine how to manage their workforce to respect both employees and company goals, and that is where Shonda Sammons offers her expertise. As an associate of Ag Leadership Partners® and 21st Century Strategic Forums®, she provides valuable insight into how to attract, engage, and retain the high-performing team of every company’s dreams.

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Taking the Lead

Sammons has worked with human resources across the agriculture industry, and a recurring theme she finds is that effective teams are based, she says, “around the development of leaders.” Who is setting purposeful goals? Who is really reaching their team and taking the time to know them as people? Who is observing and respecting their coworkers’ boundaries? The head of a team sets a tone for its culture, and Sammons stresses that leaders must be able to pull the best out of those under their supervision.

Furthermore, employees seek to keep up with the authority that they respect. Remarks Sammons about well-constructed teams, “Employees are communicating ‘where should I be?’ and we’ve never had that before.” When a leader can describe the value in the task they’re giving their team and employees know someone has faith in their ability to complete it, companies get the high-performers they’re constantly after. Sammons cautions, however, that “When we’re spending all of our time with our squeaky wheels, then our high-performing, our high-potential employees are getting ignored because they’re out there doing their work. And that’s where we have the biggest risk, is that those ignored employees are then willing to, if the right company calls, [go]…All employees want to have clarity around their expectations.” It’s a matter of being able to delegate time and resources to the employees that need it without leaving team members out, and while that can be a hard line to walk, those that keep their balance produce incredible results.

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Cultural Competence

Another tenet of a workplace that can retain its workers is healthy company culture. Especially with the fast-rising norm of employees openly discussing their wages, benefits, and general treatment in their careers, a company that doesn’t care about its employees will struggle to keep them. As Sammons puts it, “Current employees are looking for an organization where there is a defined culture that they can align to. And that’s really important, that you are building your internal recruiting force through your employees. Building that advocacy. Because [workers] are talking, and if the talk is not positive about your organization, then people are staying away and not even applying. So you want to be very mindful of that internally, that [the] culture speaks… that you’re supportive of your staff, that you’re creating an environment where they can grow and develop, and there are plans that are clearly defined on what that career path looks like.”

Some of that culture can mean measures as simple as respecting working versus non-working hours, but it also means connecting with employees and giving them opportunities to grow—even if that means some failure along the way. Sammons herself explains that “[an employee] may make a mistake…so when there’s trust there, then that employee knows they’re not going to lose their job. It becomes a learning opportunity.” This grace from leaders then allows them to receive it from their employees in turn when they make an error, and it creates a more harmonious space for everyone, regardless of one’s place on the chain of command.

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Yet another benefit of building a strong workplace culture is the opportunity to create boomerang employees. These are employees who return to a company after working elsewhere for a time, and in an age where agriculture continues to fuel the American economy, contributing around $134.7 billion to the U.S.’s GDP as of 2020, producers can use them to meet demand. Sammons has been hearing more and more about boomerang recruiting and explains the basic principle behind it: “If someone leaves the organization…we create a space where they can come back. We want them to come back.” There’s already evidence that it’s working, too. From January 2019 to April 2022, boomerang workers constituted approximately a third of all hires, but even so, what are the advantages of this other than the obvious extra hands on deck?  Well, boomerang employees already know the company they’re returning to, which helps to ease the onboarding process, and upon their arrival, companies have the chance to build stronger relationships with the employees they shaped and that shaped their workforce in turn.

Moreover, having enough staff allows time for labor-constrained industries, like pork production, to get farmhands out of a barn and connected to technology that allows them to see how much their roles support their industry. As SwineTech® CEO and Popular Pig® host Matthew Rooda says, it’s about “giving people enough time outside of the farm, involved in events, to find and cultivate and grow that passion for the industry as a whole.”

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Interviewing Intelligently

Speaking of passion for one’s craft, Sammons explains that it’s also not enough to run a standard, impersonal interview these days—certainly not with the employee shortage that, well, everyone seems to be facing. “So when we’re attracting employees, it’s imperative that…when we’re interviewing, that the onboarding of that employee starts right then…Treat them as if they’re your most valuable employee before they even start.” She adds that even if they turn down the job initially, they may consider the role later in their career because “They’ll remember that always, of how they were treated even when they decided not to accept the position.”

Aside from a traditional hiring interview, however, Sammons also describes a “stay interview.” Rather than a potential candidate describing why they would be a good fit for a company, a stay interview is a method for an employer to check in with their current employees and their concerns about their position. Sammons explains that “When we’re asking a series of questions to employees around ‘what are you thinking about on your way to work?’ [it] gives you a good idea right now about where their head is…If they’re thinking about the stress of things at home, if they’re thinking about ‘there’s a lot going on; there’s chaos within the barn’…we can then have a discussion around what’s going on.” This method of evaluating employees builds culture, clarity, and leadership. When employees know that their leaders care, they’re more likely to feel content in their positions, and conversely, when leaders understand the thoughts of those under their supervision, it’s easier for them to show they care.

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Growing in Generations

While these are excellent ideals to uphold, it’s also worth noting that a productive professional culture, especially in agriculture, requires navigating the clashing identities between generations in the industry. Many younger hires are seeking to truly understand their work, and while that may be a noble goal, the pursuit of that knowledge can come off as disrespectful to older generations. Some would ask why they, as a senior employee on-site, should be questioned by a new hire. Rooda gives the example of being told to powerwash a room and asking “Why?” “Because I said so!” might be the instinctive response of an older staff member, but, Rooda insists, “It’s not something being asked out of disrespect. It’s something being asked to understand.” Younger generations are looking at the mechanics behind what they do, and that curiosity, treated properly, can be a great learning opportunity for those new to the pork industry to learn from the experts that built it in decades past.

The evolution of pork production from the late 80s to today has been monumental. Rooda testifies that he’s heard people say they were once told “There’s never going to be a computer in a barn,” but just look at the state of agriculture and the pork industry today. With the developments of products like PigFlow® and SmartGuard® that merge cutting-edge technology and cross-domain knowledge with swine management, older generations are evaluating and adapting how to improve upon what they’ve constructed in their years of labor. Particularly with many newcomers to agriculture never having worked on farms before, the experience of senior employees can be invaluable. We need to help these experts spend more time on creating the future and less time fighting fires.

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That being said, Sammons emphasizes that “We’re more alike than we are different.” The industry is constantly changing, often in ways that were once unfathomable to even the most seasoned individual, but from farmhands to CEOs, pork producers share the common goal of crafting a high-quality product. It’s not divided that agriculture will conquer its evolution; producers are stronger together than apart, and respecting all members of a team creates undeniable results.

In a new age of labor, companies’ abilities to nurture leadership, craft culture, and work with people of all kinds are key to creating and retaining the workforce that the U.S. needs. Powerful agriculture comes from powerful workers, and pork is better for it.

By Isabella Rivera

Want to stay up to date with SwineTech? Keep an eye on the Popular Pig podcast and the rest of our blog for releases that bring you the freshest cut.

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