Hungry to learn?

A lot is said about employees wanting to learn, but that must be someone else’s employees, not mine!

Employee development is critical for the success of farms. We say that, but do we believe it? We understand that farming in getting increasingly technical with thinner margins and greater risks, and we know that employee development will enable them to make better decisions and solve problems. But do employees really want to learn?

According to dairy farm employees, the answer is overwhelmingly, “Yes”! Through interviews with 174 dairy farm employees from 13 farms in a project led by Michigan State University Extension educators, Phil Durst and Stanley Moore, the average response when asked to rate their interest in learning was 4.73 on a scale of 1 – 5. For that question, employees were told that 1 = “I already know enough to do my job” and 5 = “I am interested in dairy and I want to learn more”. They nearly unanimously selected 5.

That however, is not how the owners and managers on these farms believed their employees would answer. Using the same scale, they rated employees interest in learning at 3.27. That is very different than the picture than the one employees painted.

Which picture is truer? Do employees really want to learn or were they just saying what they thought the interviewer wanted to hear? These are not meaningless questions - In fact, the extent and investment by farm owners in employee training depends on the answer. Employers have been reluctant to believe the results based on their own experience.

But maybe their experience is a result of poor training methods, wrong approach or bad timing. Recently, two bilingual veterinarians shared examples of their employee’s desire to learn. These examples were shared unsolicited, yet they strongly reinforce our research results.

On one farm a MSU graduate student, a veterinarian who is fluent in Spanish, was gathering data for a research project. She related that when she was there, the employees, “Gently asked me to teach them more about frequent diseases in periparturient cows, not only about the diagnosis and treatment, they were also interested in knowing why and how they occur.”

She scheduled a time to go back and talk with the employees about the transition period and issues such as ketosis, displaced abomasum, milk fever, and metritis. She reported, “I started explaining how a ruminant animal ‘works’ and showed them the several ‘stomachs’ a ruminant has and how they process the food . . . they were amazed! The talk was planned to take no more than an hour and half, but it took three hours (because of all the questions) and I could not finish everything I planned to talk about.”

She concluded by saying: “I do not know how many questions they asked, but there were a lot! . . . I noticed how difficult it was for them to communicate in English, how worried they were to do a good job with the animals, and how grateful they were that I helped them to understand how a ‘vaca’ (cow in Spanish) works.”

This experience validates the rating that employees chose to represent their interest in learning. While this is just one example, it became all the more powerful when I heard another unsolicited example within two weeks of the first.

In this one, a practicing veterinarian left a message on the phone of Dr. Ron Erskine, MSU, and saying, “I had our lunch meeting with (a farm’s) milkers and it went really well. I was only anticipating on being here about 45 minutes to an hour, (and) I spent the next hour trying to get pretty much out of the restaurant because they just kept on asking questions, really pertinent questions. They’re asking about teat dip, and then one of their newest milkers, a young 20-year old girl (said), ‘So you mentioned oxytocin. Does yelling and screaming at them (cows) affect oxytocin?’… and then we went off on that tangent.”

This veterinarian wrapped it up saying, “Just want to let you know it was really good, and honestly I finally just had to leave even though they were chasing me along the restaurant asking me more milking questions, so it was great, thanks!”

Why are the experiences of these veterinarians, and the research results, in contrast to what some producers experience? Maybe the answer is in what the veterinarians indicated. Here are some key points:

  • Attitude – They believed the employees wanted to learn and were capable of learning, and they wanted to help them learn.
  • Language – They spoke the same language of the employees.
  • Time – They made time (maybe not enough) to talk with employees.
  • Why – They explained the physiology of the cows, they shared “why” things happen and “why” the protocols are as they are.

There may be other reasons, but the point is to recognize the hunger that most employees have to learn. Feed that hunger and your employees will respond. Maybe you set-aside time one day a week for a “dairy talk time” with your employees. Any topic can be on the table or let them suggest the topic in advance. Consider purchasing a supply of the booklet “People and Parlors” by Hoard’s Dairyman. It contains 20 one-page articles for employees, in English and Spanish, on aspects of milk quality. Encourage an attitude of learning throughout the farm and back that up with sharing what you learn.

If you quench their hunger with disinterest you will lose good employees. Feed their hunger with information and you will gain their loyalty. 

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