How agri-retailers can welcome Generation Y

Generation Y – the segment of the population born between the 1980s and the end of the millennium – are becoming an increasingly significant percentage of Canada’s workforce.

However, according to the 2011 Census of Agriculture, the average age of a Canadian farm operator is currently 54 years of age, with just under ten per cent falling in the Generation Y, or millennial, bracket.

There is no question that Gen Y, a group of people often described as entrepreneurial, courageous, and driven by a desire to contribute to an important cause, can bring value to the ag sector. But they aren’t coming on their own – agri-retailers must learn to reach out to, and embrace, this up-and-coming demographic.

The Ag Understanding Gap

The lack of younger workers in the ag sector is caused, in part, by Gen Y’s desire to find careers in knowledge-based organizations, gravitating to those with a strong technological focus. For the most part, these kinds of jobs are seen to be located in urban areas, and the agricultural industry is perceived to be well behind the curve in terms of being on the cutting edge of technology.

“I feel as though the ag industry is a little misunderstood these days,” says Pamela Ganske, customer service liaison for Parkland Fertilizer, and a millennial herself. “The perception remains of an ‘old tractor out on the farm, and getting your hands dirty’ which – granted – is one aspect of the industry, but there are just so many other opportunities. Unless they grow up in agriculture, most millennials just don’t know what it has to offer.”

Emerson Csorba of Gen Y Inc., whose company focuses on helping organizations improve their cross-generational engagement in the workplace, sees potential for fostering an interest in agriculture amongst millennials. “It is just a matter of getting the right kind of dialogue going between stakeholders across generations, and then marketing with new messages across non-traditional channels,” he says. “There is a long way to go in order for this to happen, but I can see it taking place because the ingredients are mostly there.”

Unless they grow up in agriculture, most millennials just don't know what it has to offer. - Pamela Ganske

Reaching Out To a New Generation

Millennials tend to seek out genuine meaning and connection to the world; they hope to make a difference. Agriculture can offer this sense of fulfillment with its lifestyle, its connection to the land, and in the importance of creating food for a growing population.

The agriculture industry is also a highly adaptive, innovative industry – attributes that will appeal to creative, technology-driven millennials. These qualities must be communicated to new generations, as they are often not apparent to those without a background in ag.

“One of the reasons that I went into agriculture is because I felt that it was an industry that really matters,” says Ganske. “I felt that I was doing something important in helping produce the food that everyone needs every single day. If we were to communicate all the good in the industry, we would really be able to resonate with people looking at agriculture as a career.”

Education is an important key to drawing skilled millennials into the agricultural industry. To this end, Parkland Fertilizers supports advocacy programs such as Agriculture More Than Ever (AMTE), which aims to create a more positive dialogue between industry and the public about Canadian agriculture.

“AMTE is an important program because it is encouraging everyone involved in the industry to have conversations with those who aren’t involved in agriculture, including the younger generations,” says Ganske.

Welcoming New Candidates

Retaining young workers often depends on how quickly a company can make them feel like an important part of the team.

Generation Y has easy access to knowledge, but they still require direct coaching in order to fit what a company demands from its employees. Millennial employees also desire that their opinions and ideas are valued.

“We are seeing a continued individualization of the workforce,” says Csorba. “Employees want to be understood not just as workers, but as people with needs, wants and aspirations.” “This is very much the way in which the world is moving,” he says. “Managers should spend some time first understanding their employees’ stories, and their perceived strengths and aspirations, both within and outside of work.”

“One of the major things I have learned by advising in this area is that people are people,” says Csorba. “Whether a person is in their early twenties or late sixties, they care about contributing to important causes, about working in environments where they are able to interact with their peers and about feeling valued in a company.”

Mutual Learning Opportunities

“Millennials tend to seek out a greater work-life balance,” says Pattie Ganske, owner and general manager of Parkland Fertilizers, and Pamela’s mother. “There’s an opportunity for Baby Boomers like myself to take an example from that. Where we often adopted a ‘first to work, last to leave’ mentality in the office, Gen Y sees more value in time spent away from the desk.”

In the quest for more downtime, Gen Y often looks for innovative ways to manage tasks quickly and efficiently, often through the adoption of new information technologies. Technology adoption and familiarity with new media channels is an area where older workers can learn from millennials.

“Social media has become really big in the Ag industry,” says Pamela. “There is just so much information out there now on Twitter and Facebook, and my generation is definitely on top of it. We are using our familiarity and comfort with being online to help teach older generations how to better access and use this new technology.”

Like every generation before them, millennials bring their own language, attitudes and opinions, as well as new strengths and perspectives.

It is in the best interest of managers and owners to try to understand this pool of talent, make the best use of their strengths and provide mentoring – and in turn, take the opportunity to learn from them.

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