Labour strategy outlined to ease sector's staffing problem

Horticulture businesses should aim for better retention of seasonal labour and pursue labour-reduction strategies in light of the sector's growing recruitment problems, a leading figure in recruitment to the sector has said.

Savage: UK should invest heavily in multiple solutions - image:HW
Savage: UK should invest heavily in multiple solutions - image:HW

Laura Savage drew these conclusions from her AHDB Horticulture-sponsored Nuffield Farming Scholarship, the report of which has now been published. "We wait until labour supply is at its most critical and think a scheme to bring migrants in to harvest is the only option," she said. "It's key for us in the UK to start investing heavily in multiple solutions to resolve the issue."

In arriving at this she drew on her previous work at HOPS Labour Solutions, one of the two main operators of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) until its closure in December 2014. During this time she worked on a scheme to couple such recruitment with bringing UK unemployed into the workforce (HW, 5 July 2013).

This yielded "small pockets of success", she said. "A handful of the UK workers are now still working on farms and have progressed up into team leaders and sector managers." But overall: "The programme proved that UK workers were not a sustainable solution but could only be a small part of a multi-solution approach."

Savage then left to help set up Staffline Group's agricultural recruitment division before moving to run its training company Elpis, including delivery of Sainsbury's agriculture and horticulture apprenticeship programme. Earlier this year she became head of apprenticeships for PeoplePlus within the same group.

Starting in late 2013, a study tour took her to Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Australia, Austria and the USA. In Poland she discovered from recruitment events "some UK farms were regularly asked for and requested by workers and considered the best farms to work on" due to their accommodation, working hours, work type and management style. "This led me to consider how workers' on-farm experience was just as important as attraction and recruitment," she said.

"Length of stay and retention of staff is actually a bigger issue for UK farms than the recruitment of staff. If we can understand what these different types of workers want, can we adjust our engagement with them to see if this may alter length of stay?" Given that such goals may range from simply maximising take-home pay to learning English, to rising to management, "how can we help them achieve or work towards all of their goals instead of just one?" she asked.

In the last season of SAWS she saw first-hand the "highly competitive" nature of recruitment in Romania and Bulgaria, "in stark contrast to our British trial workers who were sourced from Jobcentre Plus". But she suggested that re-introducing such a scheme "further east" would not necessarily be a sustainable solution.

As net farm labour "consumers", Australia and Austria have both gone to elaborate lengths to embed sector recruitment and training in a network of institutions. Austria's emphasis on vocational education from a relatively young age "results in some impressive vocational statistics" with 80 per cent of 14- to 15-year-olds on such a programme. Public perception about apprenticeships is high," with 40 per cent of the Austrian workforce having apprenticeship diplomas, she said. Adopting such a system in the UK "would help to address parents' perceptions" of vocational training being of inferior value.

Perhaps her most surprising finding came in California, where the Morning Star tomato grower and processor pursues a radical "flat" business culture that emphasises self-management, creating "a culture of individual ownership and responsibility", said Savage. "All the staff I spoke to agreed it shares the pressure. Instead of one person knowing the impact of things not working how they should, the whole team does." While Morning Star has a policy of not firing staff, "through natural selection colleagues who just don't buy into this style of working usually ask to leave the company".

As well as advocating "attraction strategies to promote the industry and raise public perception, and "advancing mechanisation for planting and harvesting", she concluded: "Ways to reduce labour demand such as reducing waste of food and imperfect produce need to be explored. Tolerance for less perfect food would reduce labour supply issues. Supermarkets need to lead the change and help to educate and manage expectations of the general public as they have a much wider reach than that of farmers and growers."

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