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In the big scheme of things, apple growers are concerned about competition from China, but at harvest, the competition is closer to home.

Growers worry about being able to compete with other industries—such as construction and food processing—or even their neighbors in order to find a labor force to pick their fruit.

“It’s tough out there,” Karen Lewis, Washington State University Extension educator, reminded producers at WSU’s Tree Fruit Quality School in August. Comparatively low annual wages in the tree fruit industry make it difficult to attract and retain workers.

The first step to recruiting a good labor force is to do a reality check, Lewis suggested. “Identify your strengths and weaknesses as an employer. Go to your supervisors and ask them what your competitive advantage is. Go to the top of the organization and ask what they think is your competitive advantage.”

Once you know what it is—whether it’s small trees, big fruit, good wages, or great working conditions—advertise it, she urged.

Lewis said makeshift “Help Wanted” signs with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors that are taped to a bin or a tree are ugly and don’t convey the right image.

“Expect greatness, and greatness will show up,” she said. “Make it look like this job matters. When you know what your competitive advantage is, put it on your sign.”

Growers should think about what would make them want to work at their orchard and commit to providing that environment, she said. Reasons why a person might choose to work or remain working at an orchard include the work environment, wages, incentives and bonuses, or the length of employment.

Work environment

The front-line supervisor is a critical factor in whether a person will go to work at an orchard and stay there, Lewis said.

“Do the front-line people put out the image you want to put out? If they’re not representing your management style or employment plan, you have to act. They are fundamental to recruitment and retention.”

Employees want to be treated fairly, she stressed. They may not like the work or the wages they earn, but what they dislike above all is unfairness.

They appreciate an efficient operation that allows them to maximize their earnings and be more productive. For example, when they’re working on piece rate, they want ladders in place when they come to work.

“Having the right tool in the right place at the right time for the right person goes a long way,” Lewis said. “Provide training and information. Make sure everybody knows how to do the job and why it needs to be done the way it’s done. Give them information to make them understand the importance of the work.”

Lewis said workers who are dehydrated by the heat are less productive. Employers should make sure water is available at all times. Workers appreciate being supplied with hats and high-quality water bottles that keep the water cool.

Wages

For workers, the bottom line is how much they can earn in a day. They want this to be based on their ability, with no barriers to prevent them from doing the best they can. They need to know they can negotiate and trust that employers will pay what they said they would.

Incentives and bonuses

Whether the employer pays piece rate or hourly wages, the system must be designed well. “Give a lot of thought to how the pay rate is set up, not just whether it’s piece rate or hourly,” Lewis advised.

Bonuses can play a valuable role if the system is well designed. Migrant workers appreciate non-wage bonuses, such as gas cards or gift certificates for groceries. “Let’s be creative,” Lewis urged. “Those non-wage bonuses mean a lot. What it says is you’re acknowledging that I’m having a hard time paying my bills, and that’s cool.”

Length of employment

Being able to stay at one orchard over a long harvest period is becoming more important to workers. They like to stay with one company and enjoy the routine of going to the same orchard every day. It cultivates a sense of security, and they meet people they can carpool with.

Retaining employees

Growers should seek unfiltered feedback from the work force. “Ask employees, listen to them, and respond to them,” Lewis urged.

When situations develop, they should be dealt with swiftly and fairly.

The future

In the long term, it is not sustainable to depend on people to leave their homeland to come to work in the tree fruit industry, Lewis added, and the industry needs to invest in developing labor-assist technology.

“We need to continue our efforts to change the way we do business and redesign the business so it’s more appealing to more people. The best way to predict the future is to create it.”