Ag Business Strained Finding Good Crop Of Employees Unemployment remains high, but a Michigan farm co-op is still having trouble recruiting and filling open positions. Prospective employees aren't willing to move to a state with one of the highest jobless rates, or to change jobs in an uncertain economy, company executives say.
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Ag Business Strained Finding Good Crop Of Employees

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Ag Business Strained Finding Good Crop Of Employees

Ag Business Strained Finding Good Crop Of Employees

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The nation's economic recovery may be anemic, but some small business are still growing and even looking to expand.

Today in our series on small businesses, we visit a farm co-op in Michigan that's trying to do just that. Despite the state's high unemployment rate, this co-op is having trouble finding new employees.

Michigan Public Radio's Rick Pluta found out why.

RICK PLUTA: Here in Michigan, one in ten people who want work can't find a job. That number doubles when you count people who are underemployed or who have just given up on their job search. Despite that, some employers are still finding the search for talent can be a challenge.

I'm at the Hamilton Farm Bureau Co-Op in Southwest Michigan. A 50-ton truck is taking in a load of grain that will go to feed cattle. Twenty to twenty-five semis a day roll in and out of this co-op. It also sells fertilizer and propane gas, packages and ships eggs, and helps farmers market what they raise.

But this is no longer your grandfather's ag industry. The people who work in the warehouse and feed factories have to know computers and high-tech systems. Fertilizer applicators use global positioning systems.

Wade Blowers is Hamilton Co-Op's chief operating officer, and Blowers says his sales people typically have degrees in fields like animal science, agronomy or horticulture.

Mr. WADE BLOWERS (Chief Operating Officer, Hamilton Farm Bureau Co-op): Really, our sales people are more than sales people. They typically take on a heavy consultative role in the farm. They'll look at the crops, they'll watch the crops, they'll make recommendations to the customer of what they may or may not need.

PLUTA: But Blowers says it's tough to recruit people who have the expertise his company needs.

Mr. BLOWERS: Where we start to struggle a little bit more is on the sales side.

PLUTA: Wade Blowers says his company is finding people are reluctant to move to a state that has one of the nation's top unemployment rates. He says the company loses more than half of its serious prospects because of that, or people who already have jobs are not willing to make a change in an uncertain economy. Or, he says, prospective employees don't see agribusiness as a challenging field.

Mr. BLOWERS: It is a business in Michigan, as far as I'm concerned, that's on a growth curve, but we need to be better at portraying that and conveying it.

Ms. REBECCA JOFFREY (Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College): I think every company has something sexy about it, and that's the kind of message that they need to emphasize.

PLUTA: Rebecca Joffrey is with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She says while jobs may be in short supply, competition for people with particular skills can be fierce, and companies should market themselves to young people who see a job as more than just a paycheck.

Mr. JOFFREY: The young people coming up today, they see the problems, and I think they want to be part of the solutions.

PLUTA: And Blowers' co-op may have another recruiting advantage, that is he has a lot of competition nearby.

Paul Krutko is an economic development expert who leads a business incubator affiliated with the University of Michigan. He says prospective workers want to take jobs in places where they know there are more jobs. Krutko says that's a big reason why some regions like Silicone Valley attract lots of prospective workers.

Mr. PAUL KRUTKO (Economic Development Expert): One of the elements about choosing where to live is, do I see a rich enough environment that I can see multiple job opportunities for myself, that if the company I'm working for gets bought out, or that company goes bankrupt, that there are other employment opportunities in that region for the skills that I have.

PLUTA: Agri-business is a $71-billion-a-year bright spot in a Michigan economy that's still sputtering. Wade Blowers says there's a lot of room for his co-op to grow, and he's not the only one who thinks so.

Mr. BLOWERS: Hey, there's competition out there that's viewing it the same way. Don't get me wrong, it's not a wide open field just to go get, but the challenge is you gotta have the right people to be able to help you go get that.

PLUTA: Blowers says there's room to more than double his sales turf and annual revenue, but only if he can build a sales force with the know-how and ambition to go out and get customers.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Pluta in Hamilton, Michigan.

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