Recruiting, Retaining Top Talent at Ethanol Plants

Ethanol plants use a variety of strategies to find and keep engaged employees.
By Ann Bailey | July 22, 2016

Finding and keeping good employees is a challenge. Throw in considerations such as a need for employees with specific professional and technical skills, and the typical rural location, and it can be a daunting task for ethanol producers. Finding talent through recruitment firms, utilizing internships and engaging employees in the work and industry culture are all strategies used.

“There’s pressure on profitability today because of the blend wall and low oil prices. What we see ethanol companies looking for, in many cases, is a higher level of executive talent,” says Gary Weihs, managing director and renewables sector leader at Kincannon and Reed, an agricultural-focused recruitment firm. In the early days of the industry, managers who simply could run the plant efficiently were sought for the lead position, but now general managers of ethanol plants also must manage the bottom line, Weihs says.

The 36-year-old firm starts the recruiting process utilizing keyword searches in its own data base as well as digital data bases such as LinkedIn to find the people with qualifications that match what its clients are seeking. The search team screens 400 to 500 potential candidates and from that pool typically contacts 100 to 200 people for each position. After Kincannon and Reed has narrowed the search to 20 to 30 interested people with the right background, it selects about a dozen to show clients who then decide which three or four to interview. “It’s not like running an ad and hoping that people respond. A lot of the people who are looking at want ads are not the people we’re looking for,” Weihs says. “Ninety percent of the people we’re researching aren’t looking for a job.”

Kincannon and Reed searches for top talent, a person who has a superior, focused work ethic, he says. Those are the leaders who get things done. They also need to be able to work both strategically and tactically, Weihs says.  “They might be dealing with a scheduling problem or an operational failure in the morning, and in the afternoon, doing a five-year plan for the board meeting. They’ve got to be really good thinkers.”

Another quality critical to the success of a manager is the ability to embrace the gray and drive it to black and white, Weihs says. That is, managers who have top talent will collect, in a timely manner, all the information that is available to them and make a decision based on the input they receive.

“The other topic we talk about for talent is self-awareness,” Weihs says. “People have to be confident because confident people are followed.” He looks for a one-to-one, ego-to-capability ratio. “It’s very important that their ego isn’t bigger than their capability. They have to be confident, but they can’t have a huge ego because that turns people off, which limits teamwork.”

Another important leadership quality of top talent managers is a willingness to “get their hands dirty,” Weihs says. “It’s not that they do peoples’ jobs for them, but they can effectively relate to the front line. A strategic doer is someone who can relate to the front line and also relate to the board, and they have an action orientation. They can lead people at all levels of the organization and implement the strategies after they design them. There are lots of people who are good at creating strategies, but there are lots of strategy booklets sitting on the shelf that never got implemented.” Managers who are strategic doers have the support of their employees and the leadership capability to move the team forward to accomplish their goals, Weihs says.

Conducting behavior-based interviews is one of the key ways that Kincannon and Reed identifies top talent, he says. “What we’re looking for is evidence of behavior where they’ve accomplished things in the types of areas the client is interested in. For instance, if [a client] is looking for someone who wants to increase market share for a fuel or chemical and if [the prospects] have two or three good examples of increasing market share in the past, you’ve got strong evidence that their behavior from the past is going to continue in the future.”

Demonstrated Behavior
Poet hiring teams also find that the answers to behavior-based questions are helpful in making good hiring decisions, says Mike Dishman, Poet regional vice president in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “We make sure we cover all of our bases on asking those behavior-based questions.” Hiring employees who have the same mindset and culture as the company also is important, so job interviews also include culturally based questions, Dishman says. “Do you have the same vision as we do? Are you passionate about what we’re doing, changing the world?”

Poet’s strong, vibrant internship program also is a good recruiting tool for the ethanol company, he says. “We hire a lot of interns.”  The interns, especially in the areas of science and engineering, come to Poet from across the United States, Dishman says. Poet gives the interns meaningful work during their time with the company and when their internship concludes, asks them to do a report on their experiences. “We feel proud about our internship programs and the results we get out of it. It’s great for Poet and the person doing our internship.”

Poet’s hiring teams talk to its job candidates about internal promotion opportunities and programs such as wellness or mentorship, Dishman says, adding that those are the kinds of programs that world-class companies offer to attract and retain employees.

Retaining employees involves other strategies as well. “We try and provide the very best atmosphere for our team members to work in. We promote as many team-oriented activities as possible. We have a lot of competitiveness that may or may not be in line with working on ethanol. We encourage team-oriented events that help out in the community, volunteering. We encourage people to be leaders in the community,” Dishman says.

Taking Ownership
Understanding community impact is an important way to help employees feel a part of something bigger and build loyalty and staying power, says Justin Mentele, senior associate, manufacturing and biofuels group, K-Coe Isom LLP. Plant employees need to know biofuels not only add value to corn and sorghum and to the ag economy, but that ethanol companies also boost the rural economy as a whole through job creation. It isn’t easily seen and doesn’t show up directly in a paycheck, he says, but the true impact of the industry goes beyond distillers grains and ethanol sales.

Talking to employees about the ways in which their jobs are part of the big picture also improves their staying power. “I think there has to be a much more focused effort now than what there used to be,” Mentele says. “What we see has worked best is that employees have to not only understand their piece of the pie in the whole process and project, but also how what they do affects others in the company itself. If purely the production of ethanol and profit is the goal, then you’re not going to have employees who are really engrossed in what they do and what happens in that company.”

Communicating with employees about what is expected of them and how they can better themselves in the company also is important when it comes to retaining them, Mentele says. Without that, “it makes it a whole lot harder to have that buy-in.” Knowing what is expected of the company is important as well. “That’s a piece that sometimes gets overlooked,” Mentele says. “What do we expect you to do in your performance and what do we expect the company to do in its performance?’

Once the company and employee know what the expectations are, they need to set goals, he says. “With that, there has to be some motivation, and the motivation at some point, is monetary, but there’s also nonmonetary motivation that drives that.” That could be something as simple as a “thank you” in a monthly safety meeting or an employee-of-the-month honor in a local newspaper, Mentele says. Whether they are recognized and appreciated for their work may be the difference between employees leaving or staying with a company. “It’s a series of little things that build up that either drive that loyalty or cause a reason to leave,” Mentele says.

Creating Opportunity
Engaging employees from the get-go also is important at Green Plains Inc. “We have an engaged culture with an experienced management team who is willing and open to hear input from employees who are just starting out with us,” says Mark Hudak, executive vice president of human resources.  “Everyone’s opinion really matters here. We also provide regular incentives and prefer to promote people within the company, when possible.”

The company also works to keep its long-time employees involved in Green Plains. The ethanol producer focuses on the company’s growth and creates advancement opportunities, Hudak says. “We provide ongoing training and development programs at every location in order to create internal promotions. At Green Plains, if individuals have a passion for a specific project, they are encouraged to own it and they have access to top management for guidance and support. This creates personal development opportunities for employees and possibly new business strategies to be implemented by the company,” Hudak says.

Green Plains seeks to attract employees with high-level descriptions of job responsibilities and specific qualifications, he says. “During the interview process, we look for candidates with strong communication skills and a positive attitude. We want candidates who can work well in teams, set goals for themselves and can remain flexible. Dependable applicants with integrity, creativity, organization and intelligence can make for top-notch employees at Green Plains.”

The company wants its workers to feel like they are part of a family, while recognizing each plant is different. “Every Green Plains location has its own unique culture,” Hudak says. “To support this, we give holiday gifts, sponsor community events, host potluck meals, have multiple softball leagues, share a quarterly newsletter and more. No one knows our communities like the people who live and work there do so every location is its own work family.”

Author: Ann Bailey
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine