Altered image will ignite interest and inspire a new generation

Recruitment and the retention of talent within the pig industry was the topic of the recent round table discussion organised by Pig World and MSD Animal Health. Held at MSD’s Milton Keynes HQ, the objective was to debate the enormous difficulties faced by the UK pig sector in attracting new entrants and to generate new thinking on how it might increase awareness of the considerable career prospects on offer. Jane Jordan reports

Chaired once again by Mick Sloyan of BPEX, this second MSD Animal Health/Pig World round table featured a panel that comprised pig farmers, representatives from the NPA and BPEX, professionals from the allied trades, teaching staff and managers involved with agricultural education and a number of pig sector graduate trainees. It also included representatives from MSD’s human resources/recruitment division and its corporate PR department.

Unsurprisingly, the discussion was vibrant, indicative of the tremendous passion that “pig people” have for their industry. MSD’s recruitment and PR specialists were impressed and said finding ways to promote and market this “ardent spirit” would definitely increase the success rate in attracting new recruits.

“The abounding enthusiasm of people working in the pig sector is amazing and the difficulties it faces are not unusual. Many businesses face similar challenges, so it’s a case of finding new ways to get your message out there and to the right people,” said Louisa Hodgson, who has responsibility for MSD’s internal staffing and recruitment.

Ms Hodgson added the generic way pig businesses presented themselves to the employment market could be limiting recruitment potential. The industry’s very solid training and career structure could also be promoted more actively and the use of social media and recruitment specific internet-based search tools could also generate interest among potential new entrants.

“I’d say 80% of my time is spent communicating through sites like LinkedIn. Most of the recruitment sector works this way now and being part of a professional social media network is valuable,” she added. “It’s the way most young people access data and information these days, so more activity in this arena could open up routes for potential recruits.”

Social media is simple, very accessible and can create a wide spectrum of promotional opportunities and help build relationships between your business and prospective employees.

MSD’s corporate communication manager, Vicky Bewer, said the industry needed to pay more attention to positive PR. The dedication and enthusiasm of panellists sitting around the table, and within MSD’s own pig business team, was immeasurable, but these traits didn’t really transcend beyond industry boundaries.

“It’s clear that the people living and working in the pig sector are very passionate and proud of their industry, but they don’t seem to be able to successfully convey this to the wider public,” she said. “There’s an excellent story to tell here, as a career option this industry offers many attractive opportunities, but it needs to raise its public profile and be more confident and open about what it does, how it does it and why that’s important to society.”

A more proactive approach could help to change perceptions and encourage more people to join this very diverse and interesting livestock sector.

* * * * *

Round table panellists:
> Vicky Bewer – corporate communications manager, MSD Animal Health
> Sam Bowsher – skills development coordinator, BPEX
> Ian Gillies – production and training manager, Rattlerow Farms
> Harry Heath – pig producer
> Louisa Hodgson – internal staffing and recruitment, MSD Animal Health
> Richard Hooper – pig unit manager, Harper Adams
> Sophie Hope – pig and poultry producer, Alexander & Angell Farms
> Richard Knox – pig producer
> Richard Longthorp – pig producer and NPA chairman
> Imogen Radford – fieldperson, BQP
> Mick Sloyan (meeting chairman) – director of BPEX
> Ellie Sweetman – Agricultural Apprenticeships & Countryside Department, Easton & Otley College
> Tony Wright – pig production manager, Sheddon Farms

* * * * *

Prime time for publicity and a fact-based campaign

The age profile of the UK pig industry is well above 50 years and, with very few younger people entering the sector at any level, the domestic pig business is becoming vulnerable. Future success, and market security, now rides on an injection of young blood and youthful enthusiasm because without “UK Pigs Ltd” won’t be able to secure the skills and proficiency required for it to compete successfully in an increasingly global market place

Recruiting and retaining talented personnel has always proved difficult in the pig sector – it’s just not regarded as a progressive, opportunity-laden career option requiring a high level of expertise. However, the reality actually derides these perceptions, as panellists at the round table were swift to point out.

As most production businesses are now firmly focused on the need for greater precision and more environmentally sound production processes, a unique window of opportunity is being presented to dispel myth and promote the “real deal”.

Here, relatively unnoticed, is an industry eagerly embracing science and innovation to increase efficiency and reduce its environmental impact while satisfying customer demands. Conversely, other industries are using these developments to actively promote employment opportunities and attract new staff.

Panellists said that focusing on the technically led, welfare-oriented nature of today’s production systems would help the pig industry engender more public support and diffuse negative speculation. Such an approach could rekindle positive interest in pig farming and encourage more people to explore a future in its ranks.

The pig unit manager at Harper Adams University, Richard Hooper, felt that the current recruitment crisis was largely self-inflicted. Politics, legislative burden and the very challenging market climate of the past 20 years had created a rather dismal and depressing image of pig production that had remained unchallenged. This, coupled with adverse media attention and a strongly opinionated welfare lobby, had cultured defensive, rather than proactive publicity that had buffered misconceptions and alienated fact.

“Outside of the industry very little is known about the technicality of UK pig production,” he said. “Most people don’t know what modern pig farming really entails or the immense progress the supply chain has made with respect to food safety, quality assurance, animal welfare, product quality and environmental protection.

“We’re a specialist industry, and perhaps that discourages inexperienced people from exploring the many opportunities it has to offer. We really must do more to raise our profile and promote the many rewarding and meaningful aspects of farming pigs.”

Enlightening young minds
More than half of the panellists at the round table were young people (aged 20-40) and represented an emerging generation of confident producers and allied industry professionals with clear views about the type of UK industry they want to be part of. Image is pivotal to future success and these young people want to see greater openness and more public interaction.

Most of the farmers present frequently hosted school visits on their units and felt a more structured “school scheme” was something organisations like the NPA and BPEX should consider.

Sophie Hope, the pig and poultry production manager at Alexander & Angell Farms in Gloucestershire, said contact with young people was very important as it could help to change attitudes, instil confidence and build trust.

“I want people to know about my business and understand why we do what we do,” she said. “Having visitors to the farm is a very positive and rewarding experience and most of them like what they see and support our methods.”

Ms Hope is also a member of Tesco’s Future Farming Foundation, a business-focused scheme that supports young people to begin and establish a career in agriculture. She would like to see more pig producers open their doors to schoolchildren.

“Being able to engage with youngsters helps them to understand the farming process and where their food comes from,” she explained. “What we learn as children does tend to stay with us and help form future opinions so it’s good to be involved with young enquiring minds.”

Devon pig producer Richard Knox agreed. He also hosts visitors on his 300-sow breeding and finishing unit and he’d like to see more AHBD funds directed at school activities, particularly with primary age children. Although food and farming does feature within the national curriculum, he believed there was an opportunity to support learning with fact-based agricultural-related tutorials and practical experiences. Such activities could teach youngsters about pig production, stimulating interest in our industry from an early age. It might also encourage more of them to explore pigs as a potential career option later in life, he said.

“We live in an increasingly urban society, where fewer and fewer people are connected with farming and don’t have any association or understanding of modern production methods,” he said. “Having confidence to talk to youngsters and show them our businesses will help this industry dispel myths and place the focus on best practice.”


Mr Knox also believed a “student questionnaire” aimed at school leavers could help the pig sector understand what prospective employees/apprentices wanted from the work place. Such information could be used to gauge young people’s needs and aspirations and to engineer a recruitment strategy that was more effective for them and us.

Ellie Sweetman, of Easton & Otley College in East Anglia, agreed but said the industry must also be aware of changing demographics and policy modifications occurring in the education system. The number of school leavers was diminishing and competition between schools (sixth form) and colleges to secure students would escalate during the next few years.

“Any industry hoping to tempt school leavers into its ranks must identify key reasons why a career in their sector offers better prospects than full-time education or other employment options,” she said. “This will be a challenge for the pig sector going forward.”

The new Trailblazers apprenticeship scheme, which rolls out in 2017, will offer significant recruitment potential for the pig sector, with reciprocal benefits for colleges like Easton & Otley. As few schools and/or careers advisors are aware of this scheme, however, Ms Sweetman said a more proactive campaign was needed to raise the profile of Trailblazers across the agricultural industry, and a specific pig-industry strategy, targeting school leavers, could be valuable.

* * * * *

Recruitment Round Table key points:

  • Without new entrants and a secure skilled workforce, the UK pig industry will not be able to sustain domestic pigmeat production or expand its burgeoning export trade.
  • Pigmeat production offers a credible, interesting, progressive and secure career path. It offers a diverse selection of employment opportunities – from genetics to marketing, from veterinary health to environmental controls, from animal care to IT and business analysis and more.
  • Most of society is unaware of technical advances and immense progress the UK pig sector has made with respect to food safety, quality assurance, animal welfare, product quality and environmental protection.
  • A proactive PR strategy focusing on the high-tech, modern, science-led nature of today’s pig business would help to attract interest from outside traditional labour markets.
  • Greater confidence in the public arena and more openness about the technicality of modern agriculture, particularly with livestock production, is required across the farming community. It will help to build trust and ignite interest that might encourage more people from outside of the farming sector to explore pig production as a viable career option.
  • The pig industry must become more effective at targeting school leavers. Establishing what they want from the work place could develop a recruitment strategy that is more able to satisfy expectations and young people’s aspirations.
  • The pig industry has a progressive and well-structured vocational training programme, embracing practical and academic aspects of professional development. It is available at all levels from apprenticeships to professional doctorates.
  • The retention of skilled staff is vital. Investment in training and career development, regular appraisals and regular communication motivates staff and they are more likely to stay. Increased responsibility and more personal involvement with business decisions does fuel enthusiasm and encourage commitment.
  • Greater skills recognition, through remuneration (bonus/salary) or via incentivised endorsements such as certificates, prizes, reward schemes (independent or perhaps sponsored) should be considered by independent businesses and the collective industry.

* * * * *

Talk tech to make the pig job sexy

Government figures suggest that record numbers of young people are seeking careers in the UK food and farming sectors. Employment statistics show that 7,000 young people embarked on agricultural apprenticeships, with a further 3,700 joining food firms in 2014. However, few of them are choosing livestock production, and pig production ranks low as a preferred career option.

Although job seekers are now showing interest in the food sector, the reality is that many are setting their sights on retail at the luxury goods end of the market.

“Food production, and particularly primary production, is quite simply not “sexy”, and a career in farming is rarely viewed as having good prospects,” said NPA chairman, and industry training guru, Richard Longthorp.

Traditional views that jobs in agriculture are low paid, unskilled and labour intensive were outdated, he added, and those advising young job hunters needed to catch up with the pace of modern agricultural practice and understand that primary food production was a rewarding work place with abundant opportunities to learn new skills and progress.

Technology is changing the way we look after livestock and the pig industry’s significant investment in labour-saving production systems is taking the strain out of pig keeping.

Innovation is beginning to reduce the time spent carrying out mundane tasks such as mucking out and pressure washing, and although these jobs will always be an integral part of pig farming, the level of automation now used on UK pig units is making them easier to carry out and less time consuming.

“The move toward precision management, and more energy and cost efficient production means that labour requirements are changing on farms,” Rattlerow Farms’ production and training manager, Ian Gillies, said. “The emphasis is on stockmanship and welfare, and unit staff are spending more time observing and managing their pigs nowadays than they are on tedious tasks.”

The more-advanced production systems are also providing opportunities to learn new skills and implement IT and data monitoring/recording into daily routines. These tools are fast becoming a mainstay of environmental management and in controlling the production process. Producers are swiftly learning how this technology and the information it provides can improve pig husbandry, optimise performance and improve business efficiency.

Precise and honest
Young farmer Harry Heath, the winner of the 2014 National Pig Award for Information Technology, said that precision management was now enabling pig producers to develop production processes that were similar to those used in the broiler industry. The data recording and IT systems he has developed for his family’s 560-sow unit in Shropshire was helping the business to increase efficiency and identify where performance can be improved.

By continually monitoring and recording production inputs and outcomes, his pig team was learning new ways to optimise productivity and achieve targets. He said the job was far from mundane and his team were very motivated.

Motivation is an integral factor when managing staff. Retaining talent relies on motivation and recognition, the pig unit manager at Sheddon Farms in North Yorkshire, Tony Wright, said. The business took the Investor in Training award at the 2014 National Pig Awards, and Mr Wright said it didn’t find recruitment too difficult as pig production was a key part of the local community, but retaining staff could be challenging as there are numerous other opportunities available in the area.

“To encourage new entrants you must stimulate enthusiasm from the beginning and I like to show all my new recruits what can be achieved by a pig business if they have commitment and drive,” he said. “Sticking the new boy/girl on the pressure washer isn’t the way to ignite enthusiasm; youngsters need to see what pig farming is really about, to experience working with the stock and see how all the elements of the production cycle fit together.

“They need something to aspire to and they want support and training to help then gain promotion and their goals.”

New staff members tend to shadow Mr Wright for a week or so, which gives them a feel for the business and an indication of expectations.

“As a manager, I want them to succeed and enjoy their work. Job satisfaction is what keeps people happy and dedicated,” he added, “and good communication with all my team takes priority.”

His management style is straightforward and forthright, and he finds that encouragement, and the opportunities for all staff to learn new skills and attend regular training courses has been rewarded with loyalty from his team.

“My door is always open, and the listen-and-learn policy seems to work,” he said.

Valuable dialogue
Summing up the discussion, the pig business manager at MSD Animal Health, Nick Munce, said the round table had proved to be a melting pot of ideas and concepts that might help the pig sector understand more about its recruitment issues. The outcome of these discussions might also help to counter the on-going crisis and encourage the industry to re-examine its profile. Finding ways to improve its public image and build stronger links with young people and careers advisors might encourage more job seekers to think about pigs as a career option.

* * * * *

MSD Animal Health
Today’s MSD is a global healthcare leader working to help the world be well. MSD Animal Health, known as Merck Animal Health in the United States and Canada, is the global animal health business unit of MSD. Through its commitment to the Science of Healthier Animals, MSD Animal Health offers veterinarians, farmers, pet owners and governments one of the widest range of veterinary pharmaceuticals, vaccines and health management solutions and services.
MSD Animal Health is dedicated to preserving and improving the health, wellbeing and performance of animals. It invests extensively in dynamic and comprehensive R&D resources and a modern, global supply chain. The company is present in more than 50 countries, while its products are available in some 150 markets.

For more information, visit: or connect with the firm on LinkedIn.


Get Our E-Newsletter - Pig World's best stories in your in-box twice a week
Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

About The Author