Operation Ag Careers helps a veteran transition from the deserts of Iraq to the fields of Biggar, Saskatchewan.

Before he connected with CAAR, working in agriculture was not on the radar of ex-Marine Neal Renwick.

With eight years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps on his resumé, Renwick (who has lived in Canada since 2012) landed a job at Parrish & Heimbecker (P&H) through Operation Ag Careers, CAAR’s HR outreach initiative.

The First Connection

Renwick was connected to Operation Ag Careers through his wife, Alex Jewell, who works for Federated Co-operatives Ltd. Jewell heard Delaney Ross Burtnack, CAAR president and CEO, speak at the 2016 CAAR Conference about the program, which aims to connect ex-military candidates with job opportunities in the Canadian agri-retail industry.

“The idea of CAAR helping to put veterans into agriculture careers struck home with her because she’s married to a veteran, and she’s seen some of the struggle that we have communicating military experience to civilians,” says Renwick.

“To the civilian population, we’re just guys and girls who shoot guns and go overseas to take care of threats to our countries and a lot of people don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.”

Renwick’s wife put him in touch with Burtnack, who passed along his resume to Operation Ag Careers sponsors Richardson International, Federated Cooperatives Ltd., and Parrish & Heimbecker. P&H talent acquisition specialist Theresa Bolton saw an opportunity for Renwick, and in June he was hired as a facilities assistant at the company’s Hanover Junction location just west of Biggar, Saskatchewan.

The first ex-military candidate to be successfully employed through Operation Ag Careers, Renwick says he is currently receiving training on the operations side of the grain elevator.

Transferrable Potential

Renwick says his eight years of service in the military helped him prepare for this new position. “Most people who serve in the military learn a certain level of discipline, a desire to succeed and a work ethic,” he says. “We learn ‘mission accomplishment’, and I think that translates to the civilian working world very well. I’m given the task by my managers or supervisors and I set out to do that – not just to do it but to do it to the best of my ability.”

Shaun Stevenson, P&H Hanover Junction general manager, says that he hired Renwick for those exact traits, rather than the hard skills he learned in the military.

“I try to take a longer-term view to see what that person’s potential is going to be, not necessarily can they do these three specific jobs when they start at the elevator,” he says. “You’re looking for somebody who can adapt to situations. Somebody who can learn, be a continual learner, somebody who can take direction and coaching and somebody who displays leadership potential.”

He notes that Renwick’s hire through the program has been very successful, and he hopes that Operation Ag Careers will continue to grow. “I hope on a large scale that other places are able to replicate the success that we’ve had because I believe we have a very, very strong employee in Neal,” he says.

“If he is an example of what the program is going to yield, then I think it’s going to be very successful.”

Thus far, Renwick says that he’s adapting well to his position. “I’ve really enjoyed it and I think that there’s room for me to grow in that position. There’s a lot I can learn, and hopefully I can develop into an even more valuable asset to P&H,” he says.

Renwick says the transition into civilian life hasn’t always been an easy one. “To step out of the military world that’s all about order and discipline was a tough transition for me,” he says. “Military personnel are held to a higher standard and sometimes I struggle with that. But having good co-workers like I do at P&H is definitely making that a little easier.”

Stevenson says that Operation Ag Careers helps address a well-known issue within the ag industry: a shortage of viable candidates. He cites both the rural locations and lack of understanding about the industry as reasons for this ongoing issue.

“Agriculture isn’t viewed as an overly glamorous industry to be in. What a lot of people don’t know is that it’s very, very dynamic, it’s ever-changing,” he says. “It tends to be very rewarding from a professional standpoint if you have the motivation and the discipline to want to do well, then typically there are a lot of opportunities in the industry. People don’t necessarily have any knowledge of the industry so they don’t consider it as a career option.”

If this first connection is any indication, Operation Ag Careers is positioned to grow in both size and success in the years to come.

“I think it’s a great program. There’s other programs out there that are very similar to it and I applaud organizations like CAAR who are trying to help veterans make that transition,” says Renwick. “I’m sure there’s lots of veterans in Canada, the U.S., and around the world who are struggling with that transition – and really, all they need is to land that first job. When there are programs out there like Operation Ag Careers, it proves very helpful.”

According to Burtnack, the average retirement age for military personnel is between 28 and 35, with many looking for a second career after they’ve finished serving.

“They have years of work ahead of them and they’re looking for meaningful careers; something where they feel like they’re making a difference,” she says.

“It’s hard to do more meaningful work than being a part of the military, but in agriculture that’s something that we share,” says Burtnack. “Feeding the world is deeply important work. We would love to give those passionate individuals that were serving in the military the opportunity to transfer that passion to agriculture.”

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