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“IT’S hard to find good staff these days.”
“How are we supposed to compete with the mining sector?”
“What can we do to get them to finish out this season, let alone come back next year?”
These are all words commonly spoken by employers in the northern pastoral industry.
It seems that 2014 has been a horror year for some property owners and managers, with an unprecedented high turnover of staff before the start of second-round mustering.
While it’s normal for a few new recruits to pack their bags in the first few weeks of the season once they realise station life is far from ‘McLeods Daughters’ or ‘Keeping up with the Jones’, it is unusual for almost all of a station’s staff complement, if not all, to resign by the end of August.
One may think that this is an isolated incident and that the source of the problem can be attributed to the company or family managing that particular station.
Of course, it’s worth taking into account that a high turnover of staff is within the nature of the beef industry, as people choose to move on to higher education, careers in other industries or to other properties to see new country, cattle and people.
However the story of staff packing their bags because they are unhappy is one that’s been heard many times this year from a range of northern operations – company and family-owned, with varying numbers of cattle and staff, across the top half of Australia.
A recent blog titled “So you want to be a ringer?” directed at those keen to work in the industry offered advice on the qualities it takes to stick it out on a station.
Most importantly the blogger highlighted how important it was to have the right people in the job:
“People are one of the most valuable resources on a cattle station. When you are managing a large area and are reasonably remote, you need to know that you can rely on your staff to get the job done even if they are at the opposite end of the property.”
So if the importance of having the right people in the job is understood by those managing the industry, then why the high turnover and what can be done to keep people on stations?
From one correspondent’s experience the industry spends 95 percent of its time and resources focusing on the cattle side of the operation, and perhaps 5pc on the human side. It’s time for a shift to balance out the scales, because as the writer of the blog said:
“Good staff make all the difference between a well-run, efficient business that is an enjoyable place to work and a time-consuming, energy-draining exercise in frustration that is akin to mustering cats.”
It all boils down to two mains factors: who is being recruited, and how they are treated.
Choosing the right people
- Is the person you’re recruiting even interested in a being on a station?
No parent sends their child to an expensive boarding school to become a full-time ringer, yet a number of pastoral companies use these schools as a first port of call in their recruitment process. In a recent interview with Territory Q magazine, David Warriner, president of the Northern Territory Cattlemens Association, summed it up this way:
“At the moment, we get city kids up to work during their gap year. They go to cattle stations like some of them go to England. We have to train them up and then they’re gone… The industry is always looking for workers and yet we have an unused workforce among Aboriginal people, a workforce that would stay in their jobs for life… I’d rather see effort put into training Aborigines than some rich businessman’s kids from south eastern cities out for an adventure.”
In addition to utilising the Aboriginal workforce, there is a wide array of people from all walks of life who are trying to find work in the pastoral industry but are often turned away for lack of experience and/or ‘suitability’.
Having a good understanding of why the candidate wants to work for you and what their medium/long-term goals are can save a lot of drama down the track.
If you are able to run people as well as your run your cattle, a lack of experience should be seen as an opportunity to leave your mark on your staff, not an inconvenience.
- Ditch the ‘used by date’ stigma for mature aged staff
The stories of people being knocked back for positions or even interviews due to being in their 30s, 40s or older are cause for concern, as are the stories of 20-year-old head stockmen and 30-year-old managers. The idea of a camp with people aged 30+ as station hands and not being head stockmen is exactly the sort of preconception of what our workforce ‘should’ look like, which needs to be challenged.
Investing in your human capital
Choosing the right person is half the battle, getting them to stick around is another kettle of fish altogether.
- Interacting with your staff
There is a difference between giving someone a tune-up for blowing the mob or being unsafe and then just being a tyrant to work for. People will not respond well to being yelled or screamed at, or worse – ongoing passive/aggressive behaviour and bullying. They may not have the confidence to stand up to you but it will eat away at their loyalty and work ethic, and staff will not be giving 100pc, let alone wanting to stick around.
The level of communication and flow of information is equally important. Whilst a work program is a living document that can change from day-to-day, keeping staff out of the loop of upcoming plans stops them from being able to use their initiative and plan ahead.
This can result in feelings of frustration and resentment as staff can feel they are being treated like a number and that they are not learning about the operations of the property.
- Facilities & Food
When somebody comes to work on a station, it becomes his or her home for the year. Living in an isolated area away from family and friends can be hard at the best of times without being uncomfortable, and whilst no one is expecting to be put up at the Hilton there are basic standards that everyone expects.
Facilities such as hot water, a running toilet, phone, TV and internet access are now standard expectations of staff and creature comforts that can make the difference between feeling like they’re at home or on a never ending camping trip – especially if they are being charged board.
- Training & Education
There are a number of opportunities for people to develop their skills and gain qualifications whilst working on stations, which come at very little or no cost to the employer. Supporting staff in such ventures is a great way to foster loyalty and upskill your staff at the same time.
- Working conditions
The current culture of where working oneself to the point of exhaustion and burnout is seen as a badge of honour is not only diminishing staff productivity, but retention too.
Many people in the industry are willing to work for longer periods of time to have several days off in one hit as opposed to having one day off per week or fortnight, and when managed correctly this is a practice that can work for the pastoral industry.
Working sun up till sun down for 30 days straight or longer, though, is not going to result in staff putting in their best effort. Healthy employees (physically and mentally) equals a healthy bottom line for any cattle business.
There are often articles on Beef Central providing hints and tips about choosing the right candidate and asking the right questions in an interview.
However I’d like to ask all employers to ask themselves a question first: what is it that you are doing to encourage your staff to want to work their hardest for you, be loyal to you and become a part of this industry in the long run?
* The author of this opinion piece a long-term employee on northern Australian cattle enterprises.