A recent news story stated that unemployment is at its lowest since 1975. This surprised me because the article also acknowledged a slowdown in the economy and such a statistic appears to buck the trend. It also reminded me of the probable recruitment crisis in our industry and to question how many of us have a strategy or plan in place.
Many of you who operate horticultural businesses and are involved in recruitment will have experienced the dilemma of attracting poor-quality or inappropriate candidates — and I have even heard from some managers who have had literally no response to a job advertisement. So where have all the workers gone?
If they are not working in horticulture, they will probably be in retail or other such businesses, believing (erroneously) the work to be easier, more rewarding, better paid or to have better conditions. There are plenty of good potential workers out there, and future horticultural stars, but they are not attracted to our industry. That is an issue worthy of its own PR and rebranding campaign, and something I hope our sector will get to grips with in the very near future.
What aspects of staffing and recruitment can we positively control?
1 - Retention
So, in the here and now, what aspects of staffing and recruitment can we positively control? Perhaps we need to get back to basics and remember that an easy way to solve a recruitment crisis is to make sure that your employees do not leave in the first place. Retaining removes the need to recruit. Naturally, some staff will leave to embark on other life or career choices, and they will eventually retire, but no staff member should leave just because they feel unhappy or disgruntled at work, at least not before efforts have been made to work with them and improve the situation.
Remember also that if and when staff do leave, they remain ambassadors of a sort for your business and can give positive or negative feedback to others about you as an employer.
I am in the process of helping my student son find a part-time job and have been surprised and impressed to find online job sites such as Indeed and JobRapido now enable ex-employees to rate a potential business employer to inform potential job applicants. Try to objectively look at your own business or organisation. How would you rate it as an employer?
Perhaps a change of mindset is needed for us to invest in our staff in a way that will create that nurturing culture of mutual benefit, loyalty, appreciation and productivity. Often we hear the mantra that "the customer is the most important person in the business", but Sir Richard Branson is probably right when he suggests that employees are actually the most important people. If employees are happy, motivated and energised they will perform better, resulting in an enhanced experience for the customers, who are of course the second most important people in a business.
Perhaps you feel you already retain staff well. You can always calculate your staff turnover rate simply by dividing the number of employees who left by the total number of employees at the beginning of a given period. For example, if you have 100 employees at the start of the year and during the year six leave voluntarily, then the voluntary turnover rate for the year would be 6%. It is worth calculating because the results might surprise you.
A high turnover rate may of course mean that you consciously rely on temporary staff as a strategy, but it could also suggest that the right people were not appointed in the first place, or that the staff leaving were neither fulfilled nor satisfied.
2 - What makes employees happy?
Helping your employees to be happy is paramount and it starts with understanding what they want from the workplace. Many business wrongly assume that money is the primary motivator, but often that is not true. The Guardian careers blog lists the top three motivators at work as a good work-life balance, job stability and company location. Other important aspects include respect, recognition, flexibility to handle domestic matters and the opportunity to grow, learn and even progress within a company.
A job role still needs to be well remunerated and perhaps equally importantly there must be fairness and transparency in your remuneration policies. Consider the recent crisis at the BBC where disparities of male and female pay have become public knowledge and imagine the effect on some workers’ morale and motivation.
It may seem like yet another task, but you really do need to talk to your employees — or have a supervision structure that genuinely will do it — to find out what they individually want from work and to help them achieve it where practically possible. It is going to be a challenge, but they will be happier and will perform better, resulting in increased output and fewer future recruitment headaches for you.
None of what I have written is rocket science, but too often companies pay lip service to the fact that their employees are their greatest assets. We still largely have a culture that values long hours and self-sacrifice in the workplace — in fact, we even celebrate it, until we or our employees take time off for stress. Long hours do not always equal smart productive hours, and no matter how important work is, most employees yearn for a shorter working week.
In his excellent book Utopia for Realists, author Rutger Bregman says: "When British researchers asked employees if they would rather win the lottery or work less, twice as many chose the latter."
It is very possible then that if your employees worked less, even for the same pay, their productivity would increase. Surely that is a win-win situation. It is a risk, but if all the people involved are aware of the reasoning and rationale, they will have a vested interest in making it work and are likely to reward you with increased effort.
Staff perks and benefits
Now really is the time to get more radical and creative with your employment practices. Start by thinking about all the benefits of working at your company as opposed to a competitor, and if there are not many then you need to up your game.
You may offer staff discounts at your restaurant or coffee shop, for example, but do any of you let staff eat entirely for free? Google does, offering its staff breakfast, lunch and dinner free of charge. Calculate and then keep in mind how much you invest in each new staff member from recruitment through to training and development. The cost of a few meals and coffees a week is well worth it if it stops that larger figure walking away and joining another firm.
Neville Stein is managing director of business consultancy Ovation