DIVERSITY IN AGRICULTURE
IT'S NOTHING MORE THAN "CHANGE MANAGEMENT"
by JoAnn Alumbaugh
Business issues will always be people issues, and that fact has never been clearer in agriculture. The workforce has changed and it will continue to change, says Tony Jenkins, vice president of diversity strategy and development for Blue Cross/Blue Shield - Florida. Jenkins shared his thoughts at the Ag HR Roundtable held last summer in Des Moines, Iowa. He pointed out the following facts:
When the U.S. Department of Labor and the Hudson Institute came out with a book titled Workforce 2000 in 1988, a lot of companies weren't prepared for the changes predicted in that report. Many didn't have a plan for growth and development based on a revised picture of the "average" employee.
Turnover was high then, and it still is. Jenkins says the fastest-growing groups in America are people age 65 and older, children under the age of 10, and people leaving corporate America. Back in 1988 people began to step up and realize they needed to take a fresh look at human resources.
"You need to be smart about the future of your organization," points out Jenkins. "You aren't going to succeed if you don't market and communicate with these different groups.
The definition of diversity starts at the individual level, says Jenkins. It includes everyone, because it represents those characteristics that impact individuals' values, opportunities and perceptions of self and others. It includes primary dimensions such as age, ethnicity, gender, race, sexual orientation and mental/physical abilities. It also includes secondary dimensions such as communication style, education, family status, military experience, organizational role and level, religion, primary language, geographic location, income, work experience and work style.
"The five primary areas cause the most problems because those are the ones that you can see and those are the ones that are difficult to change," notes Jenkins. "We are a very visual culture."
Often, however, the companies that learn how to embrace these inherent differences are the most successful.
"If you value your workforce, they will create value for you in the workplace," Jenkins says. "We must create a culture where we value the individual differences of employees."
MAKE ROOM FOR NEW TYPES OF EMPLOYEES
Briggs, who also spoke at the Ag HR Roundtable, says generally, students are not attracted to agriculture because of their perceptions. "We have to educate people about our professions and start talking to students early - you want students to know at a young age that big things are happening at your company."
She believes agriculture is beginning to do a better job of targeting minority students, but there's still a long way to go. "Big businesses are not where they need to be in the big chef salad. There's way too much lettuce - we need more color," Briggs quips.
Keeping employees satisfied is a never-ending challenge, but if employees don't feel comfortable in a job, they will change. No longer does an employee get a job with the intention of keeping it forever. On the other hand, job satisfaction is a partnership between the employer and the employee. "Look at what you need to do to create an atmosphere of trust and respect in your organization," says Jenkins. "This work is a journey - it doesn't have an end - because the demographics of this country will continue to change. You have to keep focused on the business aspect of why this is important."
Jenkins suggests trying to reach employees in a number of different ways, and Briggs agrees. Here are some activities used in their businesses:
"If you're trying to make a decision between diversity and talent, you should choose the talent every time; but you have to build the pipeline for diverse talent. Focus on your pipeline to make sure you have the development and growth for a wide range of employees within the company," states Tyson's Briggs.
Also, think about reaching people in new ways, adds Jenkins. We're still mired in the '70s and '80s in the way we market our companies, particularly in agriculture.
"We have to understand what way we want to connect with people, then follow it up with substance. You have to get people's attention," he states.
"While we've made considerable progress, I still think we have a long way to go in regard to diversity," sums up Eric Spell, president/CEO of AgCareers.com. "We still do a lot of lip service in agriculture, and we can do a better job of preparing ourselves for a diverse industry." AM
JoAnn Alumbaugh is with Farms.com, a company serving agriculture with offices in North Carolina, Iowa and London, Ontario. AgCareers.com, a division within Farms.com, sponsored the Ag HR Roundtable.