Business planning - Dealing with skills shortages

The chances are that if you run a horticultural enterprise in the UK you will at some time have experienced difficulty in recruiting staff. If so, you are not alone. Across the whole of our sector, whether it be production, retail or landscaping, companies of all sizes are struggling to recruit. This is no surprise given that Department for Work & Pensions figures released last year showed the lowest unemployment rate since 1975, with a record high employment rate of 75.7%.

The recovery from the recession in 2008 has been accompanied by a dramatic reduction in the unemployment rate from 8.5% in 2011 to just over 4% last year. This might mean there are not enough people to fill the available jobs, let alone people with the right skills and qualifications. In a highly labour-intensive sector such as ours, the lack of available labour will inhibit growth. That may mean activities have to be scaled back to a manageable level.

What then are the strategies you need? The first is to become the very best employer that you can, to both retain current staff and attract new recruits. Here are a few ideas:

1. First, conduct a robust, honest and objective review of yourself or your company as an employer. What sets you apart from competitors? What are the advantages and perks of working for you, and what are 

the drawbacks? Review your staff turnover — why do people leave? What feedback have they given? Always seek feedback and accept it constructively. Why should someone work for you? Conduct an employee satisfaction survey to find out what staff think of their employment or, better still, have your finger on the pulse by covering this in regular informal and structured supervision.

2. Motivate and reward existing staff. Do not be mistaken to think that staff are entirely motivated by money. Being given respect, training, prospects, recognition and fair treatment are also extremely important, and this needs to be demonstrated from the top down.

Get to know your staff and make sure that they feel part of your team, engaged in your organisation and aware of its aims and goals as well as the challenges it faces. They are more likely to feel loyal to something in which they have an emotional investment and where they are valued for their contribution.

Do what you can to develop them within the scope of your organisation to improve their skills and prospects. Of course, this might need some creative thinking. If you are a small organisation that has limited career-development opportunities, why not plan a work exchange with a similar company, perhaps even overseas?

Obviously salary is important, so do pay as decently as you can. You can also supplement a wage with other rewards that have significant value to staff, such as flexible working hours, extra holiday entitlement and bonus incentives. Negotiate individually to find out what old and new staff value and need, but keep comparisons fair and equal. Offer a decent staff discount scheme, with the benefits increasing with each year of service.

3. Create a positive, fun and enthusiastic culture. We spend a lot of our lives at work, so we might as well enjoy it. An uplifting, encouraging and supportive culture will attract people to your organisation. Do not automatically buy the cheapest products, such as tea, coffee or even toilet rolls, for your staff. Show that you value them enough to provide decent refreshments and make staff areas clean, comfortable and pleasant.

Perhaps your staff bring in their own tea and coffee or pay into a tea club. The cost of taking this over will probably be very little compared to the benefits your staff will perceive. A decent coffee machine is actually fairly reasonable and a quick way to improve staff morale.

4. A big mistake made by many employers when they are recruiting staff is that they fail to sell themselves to the prospective candidates. In future, the people you will interview will probably have a choice of vacancies to apply for, so you will have to not only ensure that they are the right choice for your organisation but also that they genuinely want to come and work for you and are excited about the opportunities, so sell yourself as a great place to work. Maybe get a satisfied employee to talk to prospective candidates about how great it is to work for your company.

Model employer

Let’s say though that you are a model employer and you are still struggling to recruit staff. There is no simple answer to this problem, but a typical approach would be to look at how you can produce the same
or greater output with fewer people. Reviewing your processes, perhaps by adopting LEAN management principles, should make the use of your labour more efficient, enabling them to achieve more.

Hand-in-hand with "LEAN" is the training principle that an increase in skills should equal an increase in output, but this should all be done sensitively with the co-operation and understanding of your staff. Make it clear you are helping them to work smarter, not harder, through streamlining certain processes and increasing their skills. Ensure that training is specific and beneficial.

Another technique is to strip out all non-value-added activities — those that you should not really be doing and for which you do not have the right workforce skills. This might include outsourcing your marketing, payroll, accounts or maintenance of plant and equipment. This allows your staff to focus on the activities in which they excel, enabling you to achieve a greater output with fewer people.

You will also be able to achieve more output by innovating new processes or using technology to save labour. There are tremendous technological advances happening in our sector, so review them and
see what is possible. The innovative "Hands-free hectare" project demonstrates that it is possible to grow crops without any direct labour at all — the technology is available right now. This may be an extreme example, but it shows that a creative and innovative culture will help solve future manpower issues and help businesses achieve greater output with fewer people.

Encourage this culture in your business now by using your staff as the creative resource they really are. Promote an environment where the free flow of fresh and innovative ideas, suggestions and solutions is welcomed and embraced, and then have the courage to try some of them. Some things may work and others may not, but generally much can be learnt from the positives of
all outcomes. Keep an eye on what works or not in other businesses, inside and outside our sector, and never stop trying to improve. 

Neville Stein is a horticultural business consultant


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