Quittin' Time

Why that hard workin' ranch left you

Published on: Jul 7, 2006

Had a cowboy, field hand or star irrigator quit on you lately?

Figured out why? What are the common reasons the people out there working the cattle and farming the crops say "adios" to cow jobs these days?

University of California Labor Management Farm Advisor Gregory Billikopf has made a study of this kind of thing - especially as it relates to Hispanic workers - and he says as one might expect, pay is important. It heads a quit-list of five or six items agricultural workers across the country give as the most frequent reasons they leave jobs.

But it's not just "I wasn't being paid enough," that causes the showdown. It goes beyond that. Something Billikopf hears repeatedly is that, "A certain amount of pay is offered and/or a certain benefit is offered and then taken away or reduced later." A broken promise causes almost any worker, especially those with a skill to market, to jump ship.

A producer once told Billikopf he paid workers by the piece, and because some were earning more than $40 an hour he was thinking of cutting their pay. "I explained to him that would be a very bad idea because the best worker can perform anywhere from four and eight times more work than the worst," Billikopf says. "In every type of job in agriculture, this is the case typically."

Billikopf told the producer if he cut the wage of the fast worker that he and all the other fast workers would likely quit. Meanwhile, the less effective workers, if they didn't quit, would become even slower and never trust him again.

About a half hour into their conversation the producer says, '''Gregory, I was putting you to the test. I already lowered the rate last week and half the workers already left."

So pay fairly, but don't pay an hourly rate plus piece-rate bonus, warns Billikopf. The more effort employees put into the work the less they get paid per effort. His research shows that kind of salary arrangement actually demotivates workers. "It makes them feel like, 'Why bother working hard?'"

Just behind pay, as a reason employees leave jobs, come personal problems, things like not getting along well with the spouse or children or co-workers. Most ranch hands consider getting along with spouse, boss and/or owner when combined as important as the paycheck.

"They need to have the ability to disagree, but without it turning into a contentious argument," Billikopf says.

Another item high on the quit-list is lack of respect. "To be treated with dignity is important," Billikopf says. He tells of the ranch hand whose supervisor made a habit of visiting the cattle pen where this guy often worked, then leaving only to return 30 minutes later without warning and take him out of the pens because he needed help elsewhere. "The worker wanted forewarning. If the supervisor calls … and says something like 'You know what Joe, I'll be over in about 10 minutes because I need your help,' workers really appreciate that."

All of this isn't to say that those working cattle, milking cows or cultivating crops dislike what they're doing, that's not the case. "I conducted a study …," says Billikopf, "and they told me they love their jobs. Especially ranch workers. On a scale of one-to-five, with five indicating they absolutely love their job, they ranked their jobs four."

Producers can download a free two-hour CD in Spanish Billikopf has prepared that helps employees develop better interpersonal communication skills. With it they learn to communicate better with a spouse, children, employer and/or owner.

Also available is Billikopf's 250-page English-Spanish guide "Labor Management in Agriculture." It is free if you print your own Internet copy or it can be purchased for $12.50 plus shipping (and tax for California customers). It discusses how to pay, motivate and work with workers. Contact Billikopf at this email address gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu for a copy.

The Spanish course, "Language Learning for Basic Spanish," is available for employers or supervisors, or a simple English course for employees is available on tape by emailing Billikopf.