March 20, 2017

Farm employment for school leavers

By Dr Clive Dalton

Remembering the students in my time (1993-2000) who went through The Waikato Polytech (TWP) farming courses, we learned so much from them and their experiences, and we also learned from their employers, many of whom had been former students years before.  There are a host of issues for young folk leaving home and starting their first farm job – with the aim of making farming their long-term career.

From school to adulthood
Teachers with students who considered them as low academic achievers always saw farming as a good employment option.  Investing further time in trying to rescue them was not worth it, and in any case the school didn’t have the time, facilities or money to fix the problem.  The problem still exits and nobody in the education system seems to have a solution.

The education system had failed these and generations of students, and as they could leave school at 15 if they had work or further training to go to, the story was to get them out the school gate as fast as possible. 

So a full-time farming course like our Dairy Farm Trainee course was ideal.  Many students told me that their teachers said that ‘it would be better for the teacher and the school, if the student left!  So the student couldn’t wait to get out of boredom, and frustration that school was.

Full-time training
It was hard for many 15-16 year-olds who had had a bad experience at school, to realise that they had moved into the adult world where what was expected of them was very different.  I regularly failed to get them to realise that school class behaviour didn’t apply at a Polytech, where we were tutors and shouldn’t be expected to wast time (and their money) on class discipline. I regularly reminded them that they or somebody was paying for their tuition.

But a Polytech full time 6-month course (January till June) for these young folk was ideal, as they could enjoy the social bonding with their peers, at a time of their lives where they matured so quickly in so many ways – before the shock of going to a farm to start the calving.

They came to the Polytech as youths and left as young men and women ready to play their part in the farming world. The two periods of work experience (three weeks each) that students did on Polytech approved farms were invaluable, for students to see what was required of them, and the farmers could provide an accurate assessment for the Polytech about the student on their strengths and weaknesses before full time employment at calving.

Many work experience farmers employed the students they had for work experience, as they were so pleased with them.  The sad thing was the dropout rate when measured 2-3 years later and showed what could only be described as a large exodus.  We had no accurate data on this, as it was hard for the Polytech to keep track if the initial trainees, unless they came back for further advanced courses.  It was from these students that we found out what happened to their classmates and where they had gone.

Living with the boss
This is probably unique to farming. What other jobs do you live 24/7 in close proximity to your employer?  It’s a situation rich in hazards. For the first-time trainee, the student had to eat with the family with meals provided, with their own separate bedroom in the house, or they could have a ‘sleep out’ attached to or near the house.  In some jobs a farm cottage was available as part of the contract (if there was a signed contract which is mandatory).

Depending on the contract the new employee could be faced with the added chores of cooking, laundry and cleaning, and other chores, which parents may not have taught them. One of the things we included on our Dairy Farm Trainee course was how to make a bed, how to sew on a button, and how to prepare some food.

Then there were issues like the choice of music in the house and in the milking shed, and the TV programmes watched.  Later the use of the Internet was the main issue.

The employer’s children could also be a problem for the young worker, where the kids pestered them or the kids’ behaviour caused frustration in the house and the worker could not discipline them in front of the parents.

Who is the boss?
It would seem clear at interview that the boss was ‘him’ on the farm, and ‘her’ in the house.  But after a few ‘domestics’ during milking and other arguments on the farm, that the trainee found out that ‘she’ was in charge of all directions and management decisions, so taking orders could be tricky to avoid getting reprimanded from one or other of the employers. 

Three is a bad combination.  That's why three sheep are used in a dog trial because they split into a 2:1 combination.

So the biggest risk area to avoid conflict is job priorities – the question of which jobs had to be done and in what order?  And whose instructions did the employee follow to avoid conflict?

What will I learn?
This is a key issue for a young person starting work on a farm, as so often despite all the great prospects with a top farm employer, by the end of the season, very little has been learned. In so many cases all the employee gets to do is to milk and then spray weeds between milkings. 

It’s easy for this to happen as the employer finds it easy of letting staff concentrate on what they are good at, and forget about their mental stimulation and ambition to learn as much as possible, so they can climb up the farming ladder and build their CV to move to management in quick time.

I remember one top student who we helped get employment with a local prize-winning sharemilker so he would progress at maximum speed.  I saw his mother and asked how he’d got on.  She was not pleased and said that all he had done was spray weeds and spread Urea on each grazing block when the cows had vacated.

How much time off?
Time off the farm was ‘the’ top priority for the new employee as well as everyone else on the farm, but for a young first-time worker, in some contracts time off was never enough.  One weekend off a month in the contract was the standard, with variations of this to cover calving.  But when you think about this – it’s not all that generous for a young worker away from home for the first time.

Depending on the isolation of the farm, the question was where did you go for a short break?  So many young folk were so tired that they spent most of their time off in bed.

I once asked a class – what was the biggest deficiency on a dairy farm, expecting to hear it was pasture quantity and quality.  Once student was in no doubt – he said it was ‘sleep’ and the whole class of 20 others agreed with him.

Most farms are separated by distances that need a vehicle to get anywhere, and for many the nearest town for a drink and a feed could be at least 30 minutes away.  Then there were the hazards of getting home again, depending on where you had been and what you had been up to when out.

I was often surprised at how many 15-16-year-olds were secretly homesick, but maybe not in these days of social media and Skype.  But then we know the other side of this – getting off the phone to do some work!

Time off for classes
It's critical that first time employees are encouraged to attend classes so they can start on their NZQA Units, and that the employer agrees to help with this and becomes an approved trainer.

Your CV
In the old days when you had to handwrite your CV, this could tell the employer a lot.  But since word processing came in, fancy paper and folders and folk in town who will come and organise your CV for a fee, things are different as a fancy layout can cover up a lot of deficiencies.

It’s still a good idea to add a covering hand-written letter to your CV, but make sure there are no spelling mistakes and it’s neat and tidy.  There is plenty of good information available these days on the Net about preparing a CV. See my blog (

The thing to remember is that an employer could have 10-20 CVs to look through for a top job, and it’s not a daunting task deciding which applicant to call up for interview, as it cost considerable time and money to do this.  More employers now are hiring an agent to sort out a short list for interview.

One student had a trick where he knew the employer would have many applicants and he phoned him to say he was passing the farm soon and could he call in for chat about the job.  He always got the job as he knew that he would save the employer hours of work sorting out who to contact.  Mind you, he was a really top student and has gone on to great heights in the industry.

Memorable student tips for interviews
See my blog (

1.     On the way to an interview, ask at the local garage or shop for directions to the farm, saying that you are going to see about a job.  Carefully note the response you get.
2.     Ask the employer how long the previous workers had stayed.  See if you can be given their contacts.
3.     Ask how long milking takes, as there’s plenty of evidence that shows after an hour and a half, concentration falls and you’ll need some food and drink to boost your energy.  Some workers are milking for four hours twice a day.
4.     And at the interview, check early on if the female boss is signed up with Jenny Craig, because if she is you’ll die of hunger.
5.     If the employer takes you for a farm inspection, make sure you get out of the vehicle and open the gates!
6.     If you have a serious girlfriend or partner, be up front and take her along.
7.     If you’ve been on dope – don’t apply for the job.
8.     Be careful about listing your pastimes, as many bosses see these as demands on farm work time.  But be honest.

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