Simple ways to upskill staff to bolster business without endless expense

29 Apr 2021

29 Apr 2021

Skilled staff are vital to farm business success, but training does not have to mean endless expensive courses for employers to fund. Jez Fredenburgh speaks to a training consultancy specialist to find out what options are out there to benefit both parties.

Farming faces a skills deficit and a challenge to recruit and keep bright young minds.

But if farmers can offer training and development, they can turn this around and bolster their business in the process.

Young people are going to be critical if farming is to successfully deal with post-Brexit changes and environmental challenges, and tap into new natural capital markets.

Sue Bryan, farm consulting manager in the southern region for Promar, says: “It is not daunting for them in the same way; they see it as an opportunity.

“They are phenomenal at absorbing knowledge and will help drive change on farms, so it is important to develop their skills.” Generation Y (those born from the mid-1990s onwards) also have a thirst for knowledge and rank training and development as their primary factor when deciding on a new job, according to recruitment agency The Hays.

Yet in a recent Farmers Guardian survey of 359 businesses, only 25 per cent of farm employers and 36 per cent of ancillary employers said they advertised training opportunities as a recruitment tool, and while 85 per cent said they received on-the-job training, 37 per cent said they had no formal training days.

When staff are well trained, feel motivated, listened to and the employer has a plan for their development, the whole business benefits and productivity can accelerate hugely, says Sue.

It also means staff are more likely to stay.

She says: “High staff turnover is costly.” According to research by Oxford Economics and Unum, the average cost of replacing an employee who is paid £25,000 is more than £30,000.” However, farmers should not assume people will stay in one place forever and it is okay if they move on even after investment, she says.

“There is a mentality in farming of ‘why should I train someone if they might leave?’.

Well, because they are with you today, and if you can encourage someone to follow their dreams, even if it means they leave, then you can have five years of great productivity, communication, training and development, rather than five years of no investment and plateau work.”


Off-farm, more formal training opportunities are wide and varied, ranging from a couple of hours to years-long courses.

Providers to tap into include vets, AHDB, Lantra, agricultural colleges and universities, and it is also important farmers proactively look for training opportunities advertised in the farming press and by professional bodies and companies.

However, professional development is not all about formal training and does not need to cost a lot of money.

In fact, formal training is ‘marginal’ compared to the continuous teaching and learning process which should be happening on-farm and peer-to-peer.

Young people often think training means something formal involving certificates, so when recruiting it is important to ask about their career ambitions and to communicate what training, formal or otherwise, will be provided.

Sue says: “What young people really want is somebody to spend time with them to show them how to do things.

Training is often about helping employees understand why they need to do something and the way it needs to be done.

“Farming is relentless, so training is about building competencies so you can surround yourself with a team which does not create work by being incompetent.

“If they do, you need to take a step back and understand who is responsible for that incompetence.

Is it that you haven’t shown them any differently?” Farmers can easily run a competency assessment to identify areas for staff training, particularly if cash is short, as this will also help prioritise what to spend time and money on.

To do this, work with each staff member to list every task they do, then assess their competency in doing that task.

If they need to improve, is it something which can be taught on-farm by someone else, or does it require more formal training? Prioritise training in areas which are holding the business back.

Sue says: “It is purely about understanding where the competence priorities are and who is best to actually deliver that.

Watching a webinar for something practical is going to be very unproductive, for example.” Consider whether staff who do a task well can teach others, so everyone can pitch in and the farmer is not left with jobs at the end of the day that only he or she can do, she adds.

This will also build resilience into the business.

She says: “If you do a few training sessions with everyone on how to feed the cows, for example, then you reduce your business risk.

Otherwise, if Mr Smith is injured or off work and he is the only one able to feed the cows, the risk to your business is huge.” Soft skills, such as communication and leadership, could also be important for staff who have a more managerial role.

Sue says: “A lot of the time, leadership is about developing self-awareness about the way you and your actions impact others.

A training course will not help with that because it needs to be pointed out to you by the people around you.” She suggests farming businesses provide one-to-one mentoring for an employee in this area, either by the farmer if they have those skills or a mentor outside the business.

Communication skills are linked to leadership skills and include how to give instructions, how to coach someone and how to discipline someone.

Again, mentorship can be helpful.