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Gen Z: New employee training

By Samantha Lahman

Originally published in the Dairy Star, as part of a series on youth in agriculture.

Large barn showing cows up front and people standing in the background

When hiring someone from a different generation with potentially no farming or agriculture experience, it can feel like we are training someone who can’t speak our language. 

What language is that? For the advanced farmer it seems to be a mix of hand signals and mumbles. For most, our introduction to this style of communication comes shortly after we are first able to reach the pedals of the farm truck. My first experience is still clear in my memory. I remember being told to slide over to the driver’s seat while Dad got out to open the barn door and realizing that the time was finally here. It was my job to back up the trailer for the first time. So in the dark, with the truck window cranked down and rain pouring in, I tried to translate in real time as my father made a series of hand signals and motions that would have made any MLB pitching coach proud. I don’t pride myself on being a fast learner, but I quickly connected that mumbles meant keep going and grunts meant you’re doing it wrong, and that there are subtle differences between “turn the wheel to the left” and “the trailer needs to come to the left”. 

This language can be learned and translated over time. But for those that are young and new to the farming community, it can be a barrier that amplifies existing generational challenges. When welcoming new Gen Z hires, it’s crucial to approach on-farm training with a plan that goes into much more detail then you might be used to. Here are suggestions for topics/questions for your new employee training protocol. Some might be common practice, but others may be something you haven’t considered before. 

  • Who does the new employee need to report to?
  • What are preferred methods of communication? When it comes to communication, Gen Z prefers instant responses, so texting or face-to-face is preferred. 
  • Is texting, Tweeting, etc. during work okay?
  • What tasks can they do by themselves? Gen. Z, more than most generations, is increasingly happy and efficient when working independently. Throwing on a pair of headphones and focusing on their work is common for youth in this generation.
  • Can they use headphones or earbuds? Gen Z has never lived in a world where their favorite music or podcasts aren’t readily available in their pocket. Make it clear when it is or definitely is not appropriate to be using headphones. Young employees with little to no cattle experience might not understand that cattle are unpredictable, so wearing earbuds when moving cows is a serious safety concern since they could become distracted or be unable to hear other employees.
  • If they become sick or something happens and they are unable to work, how far in advance should they let you know? How should this be communicated; text or call?
  • What is okay to wear to work and why. For those who have grown up around livestock, it’s obvious why you should wear closed toed shoes or why you need to wear rubber boots. As discussed in the previous article in this series, Gen Z wants to know ‘WHY’ they need to do something. Take the time to share with them that cows sometimes seem to get pleasure from stepping on your feet and that closed toed shoes will protect you and that rubber boots are much easier to clean and sanitize which is an important step in your biosecurity plan.
  • Gen Z, like Millennials, expect continual feedback. Establishing a norm for asking questions should be a top priority. When and how should employees ask questions? Is it okay for them to text you as they are completing the task or do you expect that they will simply skip the tasks they don’t know how to do? While it may seem ridiculous, it brings to mind a friend who had asked their young son to clean out a specific corner of his chicken coop. After two days it still hadn’t been done so he asked his son why. His response was that he didn’t know where the shovel was. Excessive detail will benefit the employee and ensure that tasks are completed to the standard expected by you. 
  • Over 90% of Gen Z are active on social media and most use multiple platforms like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, SnapChat, and Facebook. Sharing videos and photos of their lives publicly is commonplace. Employers need to have clear communication on the use of social media within their operation. ‘When’ is it okay and ‘what’ is okay to post online and share from their job? Is it okay to share selfies while preg checking? Why is it not okay to video the disposal of a carcass? Gen Z is passionate about what they do and they want to make a difference and contribute to something greater. Sharing what they do publicly is part of this desire, so it's important that you help them understand the best way to do this. Sharing positive interactions and farming practices can be a great asset to your operation and to the ag community as a whole. 
  • So, how do we protect our operations from those that disagree with our practices, while educating the next generation of farm employees, all while letting them be publicly proud of the work they are doing? There’s not an easy solution, but one idea is to provide a statement to new employees that stresses that they are expected to positively support the farming operation by ensuring that all animals are healthy, safe, and treated with respect and that they are required to report any and all concerns for animal and employee safety immediately to farm management. This type of message gives employees the confidence that their opinions and concerns matter and will be addressed immediately. Employees may raise concerns in regards to things they don’t understand, but now they have opened a conversation that allows you to educate them on what is being done and why. 

On the farm, where it is important not just for productivity, but for safety, communication hurdles can be challenging. The best advice is to start with the assumption that they know very little and go from there. And, don’t let their first task be backing up the trailer.

-- Samantha Lahman, Extension educator

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  1. I had to laugh at the "mix of hand signals and mumbles" - you described every interaction I ever had with my grandfather. Thank you for the thoughtful reminders to over-communicate and make sure the lanes of communication are open in both directions.


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