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Teamwork, communication help MFA overcome challenges of tight labor

For industries like agricultural services and trucking, the labor market was challenging even before 24 months ago. But with the chaos brought by COVID-19 and labor distortions from emergency spend­ing to compensate for lockdown— plus the gyrations of supply and distribution shocks—these in­dustries see increased pressure on finding and keeping employees.

MFA isn’t immune to these challenges, and the fundamentals of a tight labor market will persist regardless of when and how the economy reaches calmer waters.

In a 2020 study by the Univer­sity of Missouri, researchers noted that the places where most of the region’s raw agricultural products originate are also areas of net out-migration. That means in many areas served by MFA, declining populations limit the number of available workers. According to the study, approximately 53% of Mis­souri’s food, agriculture and forest­ry jobs are found in the 76 counties that experienced net population losses between 2010 and 2019.

In fact, 36% of these jobs are in 48 counties that have fewer residents today than in 2000. While the study didn’t reach into neighboring states where MFA does business, I’m sure the trend holds.

In general, the out-migration is lesser in counties around regional population hubs and major cities. You are familiar with the phenom­ena. Rural residents who aren’t tied closely to farms or family-held businesses search for employment where opportunity is increased by concentrated economic activity.

Another finding from the study showed that 90% of firms sur­veyed, including those in areas of shrinking populations, indicated that they intend to grow in the next five years. That growth will require additional employees in most cases.

The rural labor market will remain tight.

In preparation for this column, I took a look at MFA’s intranet—our internal, employee-only website. We recently added a page to cele­brate employee service milestones. For September, we highlighted 21 employees with a collective service of 300 years—an average of about 14 years per employee. The four longest-serving employees listed had an average of 36 years.

These numbers are just a snap­shot of MFA staff anniversaries, but they are important for a coopera­tive’s success. Employee retention and experience are essential factors for service. We must be competi­tive to hire and retain employees, but above that, we have to develop MFA personnel who deliver on our mission. We have to build a team.

I’ve said more than once in this column that people are MFA’s greatest asset. It’s to our strategic advantage, and yours, to find the right employees and put them in the right positions. We have good people and will continue to up­grade during the hiring process and through training. We have to keep employees at pace with technology and the evolving industry.

A few years ago, when the MFA management team was engaged in strategic planning, we surveyed employees about what they needed to serve the co-op’s customers. One of the things identified was boost­ing internal communications. It’s a critical part of teamwork.

MFA acted on that engagement. We’ve improved communication throughout the company. It was a pleasure this year to watch that teamwork grow. Of course, 2021 was a good year. Teamwork is easiest viewed through the lens of a win.

Teamwork feels more difficult during challenges, but that’s when it’s all the more critical. I believe that MFA’s team, through the chal­lenges of down years, has proven itself, and you saw experience in action this year.

Given world events and market headlines, it’s obvious we face new challenges ahead. When I visit with staff, I remind them that we can’t expect outstanding results. We have to take our plan, work as a team, make informed decisions and dog­gedly seek the results that we want and that you expect.

At an employee meeting this fall, I borrowed a quote from Patrick Lencioni, who built on his expe­rience at businesses like Bain & Company and Oracle and now studies organizational structures. Lencioni said, “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both be­cause it is so powerful and so rare.”

To that, I added, “It’s more im­portant to be a player on the best team than be the best player on the team.”

That’s something our 30-year employees know, and it’s something we are eager to teach by example to new employees. It’s a way to grow in a challenging marketplace. And it is how we intend to serve you.

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