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Onboarding vs. Waterboarding: How Janae Metzger Makes Staff Onboarding Less of a Chore


New Standard Staff

Onboarding vs. Waterboarding (1)

When you meet Janae Metzger, the first thing you will notice is that she is an intelligent, friendly, and enthusiastic individual. And it is these very traits that have made her so successful in hiring and onboarding new barn employees. Metzger is the Assistant Manager and Employee Developer at Pig Hill in Alvord, Iowa. Her successes in the area of human relations and training have caught the attention of much bigger operations, with several farms hoping to learn her ways and duplicate her success.

About Pig Hill

Pig Hill is a part of Mogler family farms, a diverse multi-generational farming operation in extreme Northwest Iowa. Janae is a Mogler by birth, and while she was excited when her family elected to expand their swine operations, she admits that the opening of Pig Hill's sow barn wasn't always easy. Both she and her cousin Chet, the manager of Pig Hill, were key in the first stage of hiring and training.

When I was hired onto my family business in 2015, I was one of 20 new hires; and it was my task to hire and train the other 19. Not only was I hired on to be the assistant manager, but to figure out how to employ people as well. It was definitely an overwhelming task starting this barn. Rather than onboarding we were pretty much waterboarded ourselves and waterboarding our new employees!

But despite the early challenges it quickly became apparent that Metzger had a special talent for working with people, finding good employees, and training them for success.


Pig Hill's "Secret Sauce"

The reality of the pork industry is that workers tend to come and go. Barn work can be physically demanding with an unforgiving schedule. Unfortunately, the public perception of "stinky hogs" doesn't help with recruiting either. While Metzger still struggles to find high quality candidates from time to time, Pig Hill's streamlined screening process, focused onboarding, creative scheduling, and continued workforce development has allowed her to retain employees longer and develop a thriving barn culture.


Who to Hire

Metzger's hiring pool is both local and international, through the TN Visa program. When she has staff openings her first step is to take out local ads and conduct face to face interviews; but she also makes a quick phone call to Tobin, her US contact who works with a TN Visa recruiter in Mexico to help Metzger fill additional positions.

TN visa workers must have 4-6 years of college education in animal sciences and their application to come to the US to work is for a temporary visa; most often for one to three years. 

TN visa employees are able to perform skilled labor; tasks that match with their education and areas of expertise. Metzger believes it has been an asset to their operation.

Where the TN visa workers bring me the most value is in their technical training with animals and their understanding of the science and physiology behind what we do; they understand medications and vaccines. While most of them have never done commercial work in a barn, they have the knowledge and the desire to learn more and they have been dedicated workers who are thankful for the opportunity to grow their skills.

The recruitment process for TN visa workers is rigorous and involves multiple interviews with the consulate and extensive background checks; and that is all before they even arrive on the farm. But, Metzger notes, they have proved to be very reliable employees.


The Interview Process

When Metzger interviews domestic candidates she focuses less on tasks and knowledge of hogs and more on their values. She has found that you can teach people the various skills involved in caring for animals, but it is much more difficult to teach character.

After the interview process, Metzger consults with the other barn managers to get their opinion on the candidates and then they make their final selections and present them with job offers.

"Who we are going to hire always comes first," Metzger said. "But the very next decision I have to make is how I can equip them for success from day one."



Day One

On their first day, Metzger takes workers through the traditional formalities. They enroll in payroll, get their PQA certification, go over the employee handbook, and learn technical information about biosecurity and other farm basics.

One of the unique tasks that Metzger implements that first day relates to relationship building. She has a questionnaire that she gives everyone on their first day. They answer a variety of questions about who they are, what they like, and about their family. Then she posts their responses on the wall of the breakroom where everyone can see it.

"I find that it really helps people get to know each other more than the basics of who you are where you live," Metzger said. "I also send this information out to the rest of the staff who don't work in the sow barn so they know more about our staff."


The First Week

In the first week, Metzger works one-on-one with her new employees. Because of her diverse experiences in the barn, she is able to train employees in the tasks required for any barn position. She finds that working alongside them gives them a sense of continuity and puts less pressure on other employees to train new recruits, which makes everyone happier.

During that first week Metzger only introduces one new skill a day. By the end of the week her new employees have seven full days of one-on-one training and they understand seven skills in the barn. She uses the end of the week as a time to check in with employees and see what they feel needs work and what skills they are uncomfortable performing. This gives her a clear plan for what to focus on in week two.


The Second Week

In the second week, new employees complete video trainings from Pork Avenue, a pay-per-employee training subscription service with videos on virtually every process that takes place in the barn. Because Pork Avenue is a bilingual system, it helps to bridge the language barrier.

Metzger specifically chose to implement the video training during the second week because she wants them to have an understanding of the big picture of the farm before they learn more detailed skills from the software.

The Pork Avenue system is so complete that it even includes trainings on Nedap and the Velos software. Employees aren't expected to watch every training, rather she breaks it into sections for them. If they are in breeding they focus on those videos.

Each training module also has a companion training sheet that employees can print for review, as well as a quiz that follows. This check and balance system allows Metzger to see if there are important concepts they are misunderstanding.

"At the end of the second week I know they’ve seen it in the barn and in the video," she said. "And now we can go back into the barn."


Continued Training

For the rest of their training, Metzger continues to build their skills in the barn, but gives employees a bit more autonomy. "I'm still there to step in if they need help or continued training and development," Metzger said. "We never arrive. We are all always learning."


Formal Reviews

As the weeks progress, Metzger checks in with her new employees quite regularly to spot potential issues on the front end. While all new Pig Hill employees receive a formal 90 day review, Metzger was quick to note that this review shouldn't contain any surprises. She subscribes the idea of continual feedback, allowing employees to feel confident in their standing in the barn at all times, not just after a review.

"I’m always reviewing. I always know where they are at," she said. "When it is an open door conversation it isn’t as intimidating."



Another important factor in Pig Hill's onboarding process is a thorough explanation of their scheduling system. Through a process of trial and error, Pig Hill has discovered a schedule that works well and keeps their employees happy. The barn operates on a staggered, rolling schedule of eight days on, two days off so that within each department no two people are off at the same time.

The Monday through Friday barn schedule is 6:00 AM to 3:30 or 4:00 PM, except for the farrowing unit which operates 24 hours a day with two workers alternating 4 nights one week and 3 nights the next.

The weekend schedule is more flexible with a standard Saturday shift from 6:00 AM to noon (employes also volunteer to cover farrowing from noon to 4:00 PM as needed). Sunday shifts are flexible to allow for church attendance if desired.

On Sundays we have a flexible start at 5:30 or 6:00 AM. All of our employees are free to leave for church if they want, we just ask that those employees come back in the afternoon to finish up their hours and perform a few chores or a basic barn check. Those who choose not to go to church can end their shift at 10:30 AM.

Rather than having employees dread the weekends, she finds that they enjoy the more relaxed shifts. "At the sow farm I worked on after college we worked late in the day every weekend," Metzger said. "That was a much harder schedule to keep."

While the schedule wasn't a universal hit at first, employees have come to love the flexibility it offers to attend daytime appointments and even save on daycare costs.

Pig Hill also gives their employees freedom to trade shifts with themselves if needed, as long as their departments are adequately covered on their days off. "If you have two days off earlier in the week and you want to trade days with yourself to go somewhere on that upcoming weekend, you can do that," she said.


Developing a Healthy Employee Culture

When Metzger took the reins of employee development at Pig Hill she knew she wanted to implement some form of leadership training for all levels of staff. She explained,

One thing I saw working on other farms was the quarterly, or biannual, manager training. Managers or leaders would go to an event, get excited and go back to the barn. There was no follow up, no continual trainings, and no employee-level training. I got frustrated as an employee because I wanted that. I wanted trainings to be a regular part of our schedule. I knew that someday if I was able to do barn management I wanted to be different and create a unique culture.

Pig Hill's monthly development meetings take place on days that most staff can be present, and when production isn't overly intense. Metzger caters a lunch for her staff and takes an hour to focus on building a healthy work culture through community and education.

The meetings change from month to month, but generally focus on either developing the team or developing the self. Metzger uses resources such as the DISC personality assessment, Pat Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Simon Sinke's research on motivation, or in-depth reviews of Pig Hill's performance statistics based off the concept of the Four Disciplines of Execution.

If that sounds like a lot of information, it is. Metzger is well-read and loves listening to business podcasts and watching TED Talks; all with the goal of bettering her team.

But she is also quick to credit others for their role in shaping the trainings, "My uncle Kent comes from the manufacturing and financial world and he has given great input on ways we can develop our staff."


The DISC Assessment

When pressed to pick just one practice that she believes has the ability to impact company culture the most, Metzger chose the DISC assessment, a personality assessment often used in corporate settings, but rarely with barn staff.

My family has worked with an HR advisor for many years and he did DISC assessments on our family and past employees. That self-knowledge and knowledge of others has been so impactful for me and I wanted to share that with our staff, so he has been coaching me on using it with them. I think that when you have a deeper understanding of yourself and those you work with, it is much easier to get along.

When new employees come on board, Metzger has them take the DISC assessment right away. It helps her understand them, how they relate to others, and even which areas of the barn they will find most appealing. The DISC assessment is available in both English and Spanish, making it the perfect tool for her diverse staff. Once employees take the DISC, Metzger prints out their results and sits down with them individually.

During our one-on-one I explain more information about each of the types and what that might mean for them in working with others. The DISC assessment places you at a certain spot on a quadrant or wheel; so I also show them the spot in our breakroom where we have the DISC wheel with each of our pictures placed where we fall.

For Metzger this wheel is the backbone to most things in their company culture. If there is an issue with employees she can almost always help them through the conflict by turning to the DISC wheel poster.

"We look at where they are at on the wheel and where their coworker is. I will often use myself as an example. I make fun of myself and show them how the pitfalls of our personality can also turn into our strengths," Metzger said.


Looking Forward

The change at Pig Hill didn't happen overnight. There was plenty of trial and error before Metzger discovered the secret to frustration-free onboarding. However, the time she has spent developing her staff and listening to them has paid for itself in lower turnover and happier employees.

"Before I did what I’m doing, we had no system." Metzger said. "We had high turnover and people were frustrated. All because I didn’t hire the right people from the beginning and didn’t work on the culture."

With a better interviewing process, hiring, onboarding, and a greater focus on company culture, Metzger is developing a barn staff that makes her proud. "Where we are at today so much better," she said. "Invest in people. It makes all the difference."

"It is honestly humbling to think that other companies want to embrace what we've created," Metzger said. "We aren't perfect, but I think we've found a system that does really work for this industry."


What happens when you take a city boy and plop him in a sow barn? We did just that. Find out what happened!

City Boy's first time in a hog barn.

Topics: Insider


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