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  • Megan Silveira, associate editor

Passing on the Labor of Love

Unique solutions to help bring more people into the ag industry.

The labor issue.

It’s a topic that’s become commonplace in the ag industry. There’s conversation about better selling the positions available and trade secrets about hiring the right person, but for Russell Plaschka, agriculture marketing director for the Kansas Department of Agriculture, there’s one area all cattlemen should be focusing on: the up-and-coming generation.

There’s no denying the statistics in Plaschka’s mind. Unemployment is about 2.6% in rural counties based on a study he conducted, 3.5% for the entire country. When the math shakes out, he says there’s less than one person available for every one job opening.

It’s those numbers that inspired Plaschka in his position as an ag teacher. It’s not about hanging plaques on the wall or pins on a jacket; it’s about helping students find their way to a farm or ranch after graduation.

“My objective was to make sure [cattle producers] had employees when they left my program,” he explains.

Twenty or 30 years ago, Plaschka says it was fairly easy to invite a student through a local school or program to come help brand or sort calves on a weekend and find a place for them on the operation long-term. In today’s world, however, it’s even harder to get kids out to work, let alone convince them to stay.

It’s a culmination of many things – changes between generations, expectations of the new age of employees, perception of the work itself.

Plaschka has a few tips for fellow educators and current employers.

When it comes to preparing students with an interest in the industry for a career back on the operation, hands-on learning opportunities are the best option, he says.

“The biggest thing is experiences shape our mindsets…give students an experience, whether that’s their high school, college, community college, technical college, it doesn’t matter. How do we get young people excited about ag careers? We give them an experience,” Plaschka explains. “Immersion experience is the one thing that we really started at the pilot program a few years ago, and it was about giving students a true experience — not a guest speaker, not a tour, but get your hands dirty.”

From horticulture and landscape work to a feed year and even an ag equipment dealership, Plaschka says the program was where he says students truly start to grasp all that is available to them in this industry.

“It was really geared towards giving them a real taste of what a short snippet day in the life might be,” Plaschka adds.

Beyond the farm work of helping fix fence or push cattle or move feed, these types of environments reveal new layers to agriculture. HR departments, engineering and mechanic work, even accounting departments — Plaschka does his best to draw back the curtain on all that the industry offers.

“That’s the jobs that students don’t get to see all the time,” he says.

On the flip side, he encourages cattlemen and other ag-based employers to do their best to make new hires feel welcome on their operation. This includes considering added perks like flexible schedules, performance-based pay increases, paid vacations and bonuses.

The new generation of workers is look for work that gives them purpose and employers that respect them, Plaschka adds.

Solving the labor issue isn’t going to be an easy fix and it won’t happen overnight, but Plaschka has faith that the next generation can find their place in agriculture.

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