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State`s low unemployment cause of significant turnover, says poultry association prez

Employee retention a tall order for poultry industry

The poultry industry processes one of the top three commodities in Mississippi, but that does not make employee retention in the industry any easier.

There are eight broiler companies in Mississippi today, along with one of the country’s largest commercial egg companies — Cal-Maine Foods. Those companies are Tyson, Sanderson Farms, Peco Farms, Wayne Farms, Choctaw Maid Farms, B.C. Rogers, Marshall Durbin Company and Lady Forest Farms.

Michael McAlpin, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association, said that there is significant turnover at the plant level today, which he believes stems from a very low unemployment rate.

“You look at areas where we have process facilities and those are just dramatically low unemployment areas. It’s just difficult to find workers in that area.”

And with low unemployment rates comes an employee’s market.

“I’ve been to practically all the processing plants in the state and it’s not glamorous work — it’s hard work,” he said.

Another problem is that many of the processing plants are localized, which makes it easy for someone to leave work at one processing plant in order to make 20 cents more at a plant down the street.

Dr. Wallace Morgan, who works in the Poultry Science Department at Mississippi State University (MSU), has a son who has worked in the poultry industry for a long time. Through his son, he has learned many different things about the industry, including some problems the industry faces.

“One of the problems is that there is a limited amount of advancement for a lot of employees,” Morgan said. “The work is hard, of course. And the hours can be a little bit tough because in the production system, the production is running at a certain rate. When things go wrong, you just have to keep going until the job is done.”

Turnover is relatively high in the poultry industry, compared to other industries. Most of that turnover, of course, occurs in the processing plant.

“You’ve got to figure out what motivates the people that you supervise,” Morgan said. “One of the biggest factors in the high level of turnover in our industry is that it’s (the industry) grown so rapidly. Any time you have real rapid growth and everyone’s trying to expand their market share or retain it, it’s not hard to see where employee relations can take a second to getting the job done.”

Dr. Carl Maertz, who works in the Management and Information Systems Department at MSU, also has seven years of consulting experience with more than two dozen firms. He spends most of his time, professionally, thinking about turnover related issues.

And though the issues may not be applicable to every single firm because every firm has different situations, a lot of the issues are very similar, and there are macro-trends that contribute to employee loss in any firm.

“I don’t think these trends explain quitting behavior,” Maertz said. “Obviously the nature of the contract between the employer and employee has changed dramatically. I think that there’s been a general degradation of commitment to business.”

People change jobs for many reasons today and that is the mega-trend that is happening in business today. People have more and more complex commitments. Instead of being committed only to their jobs, people are also interested in committing time to their families, clubs, etc.

“There’s less commitment potential today,” Maertz said.

And in industries with aversive work conditions, even less commitment is there.

“(In an industry where people are made to do) repetitive tasks in cold or hot environments with no real opportunity for advancement, you’re going to have a high turnover. The thing that’s so hard about managing turnover is that it can happen with anything.

“When you have a situation which is first of all not very pleasant, then any little thing can make you quit. Because there is certainly just as much opportunity elsewhere in terms of numbers of jobs.”

Maertz compared workers at an aversive working environment to a sporting event during a downpour.

“You’re at a sporting event sitting in the cheap seats and it starts to rain. It’s kind of like choosing to move seats in the rain. (You’re) trapped. (You) can’t leave the stadium but you can move from seat to seat. If you’re sitting in one seat and it looks like it might be rickety, that’s a pretty good reason to move to another seat. You might as well choose the least bad at that time.”

As the director of human resources at Choctaw Maid, Dan Risher has seen many people come and go from his company.

Choctaw Maid is a privately owned, vertically integrated poultry processor with headquarters in Carthage. The company, which began as a milling and hatching operation, now has 2,800 employees, with processing plants in Carthage and Forest, hatcheries in Walnut Grove and Newton and a feed mill in Union.

Risher said although their employee turnover rate is high, Choctaw Maid is trying different things to make work more appealing.

Of course because their company has to meet USDA regulations for food safety, there are some areas of the plant that have to remain cool, in the 45 to 50 degree range, to be precise. But with modern facilities and large, clean break rooms, Choctaw Maid is trying to be competitive with the benefits and wages of other companies.

Anniversary jackets are given to employees who have been in the company for a set period of time, and there is a company picnic once a year. There is also a company newsletter to let people know what is going on in the company. Employees are bought lunch on their birthdays and a watermelon on Independence Day. Employees are also treated to Thanksgiving dinner in November.

“Just little things to let them know that we appreciate the employees and the good job they’re doing for us,” Risher said. “We’ve got some pretty well experienced people in our department.”

Aside from doing things for the employees, Choctaw Maid also uses consultants from time to time to stay abreast of what is happening in the industry.

But, as Risher pointed out, industry-wide, if the poultry industry is compared to another industry such as manufacturing, turnover is historically much higher.

And although Choctaw Maid’s turnover rate has dropped significantly and is comparable to what Risher has seen in other processing facilities, “there’s still a lot of room for improvement,” he said.

Risher has worked in the poultry industry for 15 years and has spent the last three years with Choctaw Maid. In his experience, the majority of turnover in the industry occurs within the first 90 days of employment. Groups that have one year or more with the company generally stick around for the long-term.

There are a couple of reasons for that, according to Risher. “Some people are only looking for short-term,” he said. “Or people come in and discover it’s not for them and move onto something else.”

Based on Risher’s experience, what Choctaw Maid is doing for its employees is more than what a lot of companies are doing today.

“It runs the gamut,” he said. “Some people are progressive and they’re looking for ways to express their appreciation. Some may not do any more than pay people what they’ve earned each week.”

Like Risher, Ed Nicholson, director of media and community relations for Tyson Foods, one of the largest poultry producers in the world, said employee turnover typically falls off fairly quickly after the first few months.

And like Choctaw Maid, Tyson has implemented different things to ke
ep their employees working for them. Aside from offering stock purchase
plans, 401K plans and insurance, Tyson recently changed its vacation policy to provide for vacations for employees being employed for a shorter period of time.

Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at ekirkland@msbusiness.co


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