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Optimising the performance of your seasonal workforce

Industry Best Practice

As industry works to improve access to harvest labour, the focus is on ensuring growers can use the labour they have access to most efficiently. Agri-food value chain specialist Simon Drum, PSVC Advisory, has some timely ideas about getting the most from your seasonal workers.

A critical link in the profitability of intensive agricultural enterprises

With improving profitability for Australian agribusinesses becoming increasingly difficult each year, the need to get the best from your seasonal workforce has never been greater. While automation and technology continue to advance within the agriculture industry, the reality is, that your operation (like many others) remains dependent on seasonal labour.

How well your seasonal workforce performs can have a profound impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the business.

Primary production, harvest, grading, packing and processing systems can all have a significant effect on yield, quality, production costs and ultimately, your profit. Unsuitable, incapable, unstable and unproductive workforces will see your front line supervisors and middle managers over-burdened and distracted while micromanaging poor performers.

With high seasonal staff turnover and lowered productivity, these key staff cannot operate anywhere near their potential. Leaving them to fall inevitably and unfortunately, short of management expectations. Continuous improvement projects and other strategic business initiatives are put on hold and job satisfaction of your front line supervisors and middle managers plummets, magnifying the risk of losing these vital front line people.

Seasonal workforce trouble spots

Any of the following can significantly undermine the productivity of your seasonal workforce:
1. Underestimating the do-ability of labour intensive tasks when designing primary production, grading, manufacturing and packing systems and processes, plant and machinery
2. Not considering the attractiveness of jobs when calculating workforce numbers, planning workforce composition, determining shift lengths, formulating fatigue management strategies and accommodation and transport arrangements
3. Stretching the truth when advertising the nature of the roles they have on offer
4. Under resourcing induction, training and supervision of the workforce. What may be obvious to those who have a long history with the business, is completely new to city people or those from different countries and cultures.
5. Not setting, measuring and enforcing clear and reasonable performance benchmarks
6. Neglecting to proactively keep, coach or cull individuals based on performance
7. Not doing what they said that would when it comes to weekly or whole of season net pay

Your reputation in the labour market is everything

With an abundance of employment options available in agriculture, experienced and high performing seasonal workers are spoilt for choice. To attract and retain the best possible candidates, employers need to ask themselves ‘what’s in it for the worker?’.

Potential candidates do their research prior to entering the country – they trust their peers and rely heavily on their international communities once in the country. The internet, social media, chat rooms and word of mouth soon paint a picture of what it is like to work for you. Good or bad, and whether you realise it or not, if you employ seasonal workers, you have an online profile. Motivated candidates are highly mobile and willing to move or travel large distances for the right role. They will positively advocate on your business’s behalf if they have a good experience.

On the flipside, any of the issues listed above will see you earning a bad reputation that is almost impossible to lose and making it even more difficult to attract good workers.

Small changes deliver big results

While businesses have no control over minimum hourly pay rates, you most certainly have influence over almost every other factor that impacts the efficiency and effectiveness of your seasonal workforce. By giving the right people the right training to do the right tasks; while supervising, treating and paying them appropriately, you will:

  • Build your profile as an employer of choice
  •  Attract a high calibre of candidate
  •  Minimise turnover
  •  Maximise return for future seasons
  •  Significantly reduce administration, induction and training costs
  •  Achieve the lowest per unit or kilo labour costs

With these outcomes in mind, how much would it be worth to your bottom line to make relatively minor improvements towards managing your seasonal workforce?

Ask yourself the following:

  • What is the current churn rate of your seasonal workforce?
  • How much does it cost to onboard a single worker?
  • What is the productivity of an unsuitable worker versus a suitable one?
  • What portion of your seasonal workforce is unsuitable?
  • Are your supervisors and front line managers distracted by under performers?
  • Are your supervisors and front line managers falling short of your expectations?
  •  Are your planned continuous improvement projects and strategic business initiatives running on time and to budget?
  • What is the current trajectory of your annual seasonal labour bill?
  • What would a 5 per cent reduction in your labour costs mean to your bottom line?

Implementing a systematic approach to managing seasonal workers can have a profound impact on the effectiveness, efficiency and productivity of your whole business. These improvements take time, expertise, persistence and the ongoing commitment of owners, leaders, middle managers and supervisors.


Start with redesigning your primary production, grading, processing and packing systems and plant and machinery to eliminate labour wherever possible. For tasks requiring people, systematically improve the safety, ergonomics and labour utilisation.


Review your total candidate numbers, workforce composition, shift length, weekly hours, season duration, working conditions, fatigue management strategies and accommodation/transport deductions to make your roles as attractive as possible.


What are the accommodation and transport arrangements for your workforce? Would you stay, ride and willingly pay for the bed and transport options being offered to your workforce? Advocate on behalf of your people and negotiate the best possible deal for them.


A truthful and transparent recruitment advertising campaign that makes candidates aware of the realities of the job is critical to workforce stability. Be clear about the skills, capabilities and attributes needed to do the job, the work environment, and the take home pay they can expect to earn for the season.

Train and equip

It’s absolutely critical you have the right people training your new workers. They must be capable of training adults and be given enough training contact hours to get candidates up to the expected standard. Trainers must also be equipped with high quality visual guides that clearly articulate specifications and standard operating procedures.

Supervise and support

A talented operator with no time to or expertise in observing and developing your workforce cannot be effective. Select your supervisors carefully, train them to lead, coach and support your workforce and give them the time to do it effectively.

Measure and manage performance

Systematically measure the quality and productivity of your workforce on an individual and daily basis. Proactively keep, coach or cull workers based on realistic performance targets.


Undertake a weekly review of the net pay for each of your workers to ensure it’s aligned with the amount you advertised and the number you know to be attractive to the candidate. If it doesn’t meet this criteria, take quick action to rectify any shortfall in subsequent weeks.

About the author: Managing Director of PSVC Advisory, Simon Drum, has over 23 years’ experience in the Australian agriculture sector. Based in Melbourne, Simon has built his expertise working for major Australian agribusinesses and large food producers in senior strategic, commercial and operational roles.

Labour / employment

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