This our third in the series to help you find and work with apprentices and interns. Last week, we talked about how to be clear about what kind of opportunity you have to offer, and the kind of person you’d like to work with. Now, let’s talk about evaluating applications and conducting effective interviews.
Go Into It With a Plan
Evaluating applications and conducting interviews serves two purposes: You’re trying to assess each of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses, as well as to determine whether what you offer is a good fit for them. Think of the time that you put into designing a thorough and selective application process as an investment. It will help you find someone who is set up for success on your operation, and help prevent you from realizing three weeks into your season that the person you hired isn’t a good fit.
Plan on at least four to six weeks to launch, advertise, and receive applications (people need to see the job posting, and then have time to respond to it), and then an additional three to four weeks for the interview and hiring process. All steps should be complete at least one month before you would like to have your apprentice start. Take a look at your monthly ranch calendar to figure out the ideal timing to launch your search and dive into the selection process. Once you’ve identified the ideal date for your apprentice to start, work backwards from there.
How to Sort Through Applications
Before you start reviewing applications, make sure you have a consistent process ready to assess all of them. Coming up with a process and sticking to it will help you make sure you’re thorough and objective, and will also prevent you from making snap decisions based on one strong (or one weak) element. There are also legal reasons for this – using a consistent process ensures that each applicant receives fair treatment.
First, determine your criteria: What are the required skills or experiences that a candidate must have, and what qualities or characteristics are bonuses? Don’t underestimate the importance of personality traits – sometimes a less experienced person may be more eager to learn. Skills and experiences that aren’t directly related to agriculture can also tell you about someone’s maturity, initiative, flexibility, or work ethic. Write out the skills, experience, and characteristics that are most important to you so that you have something to evaluate your candidates against.
Plan to go through all of your applications at least twice. First, do a quick read through and make some basic notes about each candidate. On this first pass, rank them as “yes”, “maybe”, or “no.” After you’ve gotten through all of them, go back to your “yes” and “maybe” lists and choose your top candidates from there. After getting through all of the applications, your perspective may have shifted on some of the applications that you read first. Ideally you have four to six candidates to invite for interviews. If you don’t have a strong enough pool, you may want to consider keeping your application open for another week or two.
Set Up Your Interviews
Reach out to your top candidates first. Getting back to your top candidates in a timely manner is important – the most qualified applicants will be in high demand, and it’s not unusual for some applicants to have found another opportunity in the meantime. You can also send “no thank you” emails to the candidates that you know for sure you won’t hire. Wait to respond to the “maybes” until you’re done setting up interviews with your top candidates. If some of your top candidates drop out, you may want to invite a candidate or two who was originally in your “maybe” pile.
Do make sure to respond to everyone. Someone who isn’t a good fit for your operation right now may go out and gain experience and become an excellent candidate next year. In your “no thank you” email, consider including other places they might apply and encouragement in continuing down the path of agriculture. Responding to all candidates in a positive and supportive manner is one small way to help encourage and grow the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
Just like with your process for reviewing applications, make sure that you have a plan and some tools already prepared before you start interviews. Considering the following Dos and Don’ts of interviewing:
Use a video call rather than a phone call.
Skype, Google hangouts, Facetime, Zoom are all good options, and provide an opportunity to read body language and get a fuller picture of the person that you’re interviewing.
Help make the candidate feel comfortable.
Smile and ask them how their day is going. You’re not trying to intimidate and grill them, you’re trying to get to know them. The more comfortable they are, the more likely you are to see the real person and gauge whether or not they’re the right person to work with you in the coming months.
Have a list of questions prepared.
Select a handful of questions that you plan to ask all candidates, and have some additional questions on hand in case you have extra time.
Ask a mix of questions that get at both skills and experience, as well as motivation and personality.
Provide an overview of the position that you’re hiring for, the operation and its history, and the community that you’re located in.
Give the candidate an opportunity to ask you questions.
Take notes! Your future self will thank you for this when it’s time to make your decision.
Ask yes or no questions.
Instead, ask questions that elicit fuller responses. Rather than asking, “Do you have any experience with repairing fences?” ask, “Tell me about any experience you have with repairing fences.” Instead of asking “Do you handle stress well?” say, “Tell me about an experience that was stressful and how you handled it.”
Ask personal questions that can be considered discriminatory.
You cannot legally ask about marital status, kids, health, politics, religion, ethnicity, or age. You can be very clear about who you are, and self-disclose information about yourself and what the job requires. For example, “This job requires that you can buck 200 small bales every day. We can only provide housing for one person. This job requires that you be available to work on Saturdays and Sundays. Are those all things that you can do?”
Consider Expanding Your Interview Process
The Quivira Coalition requires our participating mentors to conduct two rounds of interviews. Ideally, the second round of interviews can happen in person. In person interviews allow the candidate to really get a sense of your operation and what life would be like living there, and it gives you an opportunity to get to know them better.
Before making your final decision. If you can’t make an in-person interview happen, schedule a second round of video calls. Oftentimes candidates are more relaxed during the second interview, and it gives you a chance to follow up on any questions that you didn’t think to ask during the first interview.
Interested in learning more? Join us for a free training!
This summer Quivira Coalition is offering free “Intro to Mentoring” workshops. These calls will be led by Julie Sullivan, one of the founding mentors of the Quivira Coalition’s New Agrarian apprenticeship program. Julie and her husband George Whitten run San Juan Land & Livestock and have been mentoring beginning ranchers on their operation in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for nearly 20 years.
Held on June 15th (12-1:30pm MDT) or July 22nd (6:30-8:00pm MDT), the calls will provide an overview of the New Agrarian program and an opportunity to talk about what it means to become a mentor. Click here for more information and to register.
Although it may seem early to prepare for hiring an apprentice in 2021, now is exactly the right time to make sure you’ve covered all of your bases and are prepared to find someone who is a good fit for your operation. We look forward to helping you get started!