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Awesome opportunities in the food chain: HR professionals explain challenges and benefits of Ag careers.

Agriculture is often stereotyped as a production-oriented industry made up only of farmers and input sales staff. What most of the eligible workforce don't realize is agriculture is an industry that has evolved, through technology and the growing global population, into what some call the "sleeping giant" for professionals seeking a fulfilling career.

This mentality is just one of the challenges that human resource professionals in agriculture face. There also is the struggle to diversify the agriculture workforce with more women and minorities, while also trying to recruit the best professionals in areas such as engineering, business, accounting and information technology, to name a few.

Case McGee, manager of college relations for Archer Daniels Midland Company, Decatur, Ill., says the "farm" stereotype has been a challenge, but he sees a shift in the mindset of many of today's college graduates. "The opinion is changing rapidly," he says. "I attribute that to companies such as Monsanto, ADM and John Deere who are doing a phenomenal job of showcasing themselves as more than farm production."

Still, companies steeped in traditional agriculture have trouble breaking through the professional barriers. David Watkins, training and recruiting manager--Live Operations, Seaboard Farms Inc., Guymon, Okla., says his company often deals with this problem. "There is a lot of opportunity in our business; we just have some difficulty getting that message told or sold to professionals. The past six to eight months of recruiting have been much better. We recently hired several candidates with business and finance degrees, and we've also seen more candidates contacting us for employment opportunities from other types of industries.

"I think we attract professionals by being an integrated company, providing a 'learning environment' and allowing them to be active in the decision-making process; yet I still think the swine industry is not perceived as a viable opportunity, or the type of business most professionals are looking for," Watkins says.

What many professionals don't realize is that Seaboard Farm's management staff "have the responsibility and accountability for millions of dollars of assets and revenues," Watkins explains.

Stereotypes aren't the only challenges for HR professionals. They also struggle with recruiting diversified and professional candidates. McGee says ADM has made an exceptional effort in recent years to reach beyond the doors of agricultural colleges and build relationships with not only business and technical schools but also traditionally minority-populated universities and institutions.

"It makes good business sense to diversify your workforce," McGee says. "And the quality of candidates we have reviewed while building relationships with minority institutions has been excellent."

ADM is a Fortune 100 company with a presence on six continents. To recruit a varied professional workforce, the company attends numerous career shows and has established relationships with organizations such as the National FFA Organization, MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences) and Women For Hire.

At Tractor Supply Company, Nashville, Tenn., the largest retail farm and ranch store chain in the United States, HR professionals continue to search for candidates with some agriculture background or an interest in agriculture who also share TSC's down-home values. Kelly Barnes, director of human resources, explains, "For our store retail operations and our professional positions, it is of utmost importance that candidates share TSC's values of integrity and have a strong work ethic. Our values are more than words on paper at TSC."

She says that professionals who may have been raised on a farm and seek to return to a rural lifestyle are ideal candidates for TSC's retail positions or those who support the retail business at the headquarters, which is known as the Store Support Center.

"These professionals can take their business experiences, such as managing a budget or hiring a team, and apply those skills to a job in our growing company with a down-home culture," Barnes says. "At our Store Support Center, we employ professionals who live the rural lifestyle--those who live outside the city and yet enjoy a professional career in finance, merchandising, IT, marketing and other corporate positions."

On the other hand, Watkins explains that agriculture has its drawbacks for those who aren't seeking a rural lifestyle. "Agricultural companies that have operations located in less populated areas sometimes find it hard to attract professionals to that location or region," he says.

Another factor influencing some in the human resources industry is the economic climate. It is true that the economy affects almost all of us in one way or another. For human resources professionals, a down economy can mean a much greater pool of applicants. McGee says ADM has experienced an increase in qualified students interested in meaningful career opportunities. This is a result of the job market and ADM increasing its presence through a variety of recruiting channels.

Economic cycles also require recruiters and hiring managers to perform at their best. Barnes points out that the down economy has broadened TSC's view of candidates and forced recruiters to improve their own skills. "With so many companies downsizing, we can no longer assume that because someone is unemployed that they should not receive consideration. We, like other companies, are continually raising the bar, raising our expectations about the competencies we require management candidates to have. In turn, our interviewing skills must be sharpened; we have to dig deeper to evaluate candidates' abilities."


One way for HR professionals to stay on top of their game is to network with their counterparts in other agriculture companies., the result of a December 2003 merger between AgCareers--owned by, is providing this opportunity for the human resources industry in agriculture.

Eric Spell is the president of AgCareers, which is headquartered hl Clinton, N.C., with additional staff and operations in Ames, Iowa, and London, Ontario. AgCareers is hosting the 2004 Ag HR Roundtable, "Careers in the Food Chain," August 3-4 in Johnston, Iowa, to bring together professionals from many varied agriculture companies in one place to discuss top-of-mind issues. Building on the momentum of the first Roundtable held in 2003, Spell and the appointed subcommittee plan to highlight issues such as minority and professional staffing, successful university recruiting and, in turn, how universities can help recruiting efforts.

Edye Cunningham, human resource manager--Live Operations, Seaboard Farms Inc., Guymon, Okla., attended last year's Roundtable and says the event is a great opportunity to interact with other HR professionals. "It helps gain knowledge and experiences from other types of businesses, such as recruiting and hiring practices, benefits to employees, advertising positions and development of staff," Cunningham says. "The key is to have an open mind in the meeting and interact with people and companies that are not typical to your own company. It's about working together with others that share similar desires to make their systems better and sharing ideas is always a positive."

McGee says this is the "first forum that brings HR professionals in agriculture together in one place." He goes on to explain that the most valuable aspect is how it is helping to create a network of professional contacts in other companies. "The Roundtable allows HR professionals to compare and contrast recruiting tactics to overcome recruiting challenges in the ag industry. It is an invaluable network."

Barnes is also looking forward to the meeting in August to exchange best practices in internship programs, succession planning, competency systems and diversity recruitment. "We have such a unique career environment, we can share ideas with other companies who may face similar challenges but who are not recruiting retail candidates," she says.

Spell says that companies attending the Roundtable will represent a broad range of industries throughout the food chain, including agriculture, food and natural and life sciences.

"What the event does for the industry is get everyone in the same room to ensure an adequate pool of candidates for the future of agriculture and the entire food chain," concludes Spell.

For more information on the 2004 Ag HR Roundtable, please visit http://www.jobhogs, org/Round_Table/ Round Table_Info.htm or call Eric Spell at 910/592-9417.
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Title Annotation:AG Careers & Universities
Author:Reddick, Bekah
Publication:Agri Marketing
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
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