Sitting along U.S. Highway 12, the town of Roscoe in central Edmunds County isn't very big. That's where Nathan Locken is trying to find workers to fill positions at the elevator he manages.
"It can be very difficult out here," Locken said.
It takes the right person to want to live in a rural community and other employers are competing for that person, too. At the same time, dealing with chemicals and large equipment, employees at an elevator like the South Dakota Wheat Growers facility near Roscoe need specific skills and training to fill positions.
Help wanted signs hung all over show Wheat Growers isn’t alone. A lot of companies are looking for workers.
State and federal officials have acknowledged workforce needs and say they’re working to find solutions. Employers need to participate, too.
Wheat Growers has taken steps to address the issue, steps that have come in handy in Roscoe.
"We've hired everybody," Locken said when describing the range of background current employees have. "They grew up on a farm, know how to run equipment and stuff to someone who's never even seen a skid steer or pay loader before."
That's because the cooperative has a training program to meet its specific employment needs. It trains candidates to become custom applicators. People in that position need technical specialized training because they apply chemicals and fertilizer to fields using ever-changing, high-tech equipment.
Through the program, candidates can come to Wheat Growers with little experience, receive extensive on-the-job training combined with intensive, condensed classes through Lake Area Technical Institute.
Locken says the program has helped him fill positions that could otherwise have remained open for months, even years.
Wheat Growers has about 40 locations in North Dakota and South Dakota and close to as many open positions.
"It's become a lot more challenging, even in the last five years, to fill those positions," Judy Stulken said.
Stulken is vice president of human resources and organizational development.
"We have a number of different avenues that our employees take advantage of," Stulken said. "Anything from on-the-job training to customized training programs."
Wheat Growers has increased its internship program to include about 30 interns a year. It also offers free online classes and management training courses for employees wanting to advance their careers.
A candidate could enter with little experience through the custom applicator trainee program, receive more in-house training and eventually become a manager.
That's the route Locken took.
"I'm thrilled I did it," Locken said.
If those programs hadn't been in place, Locken says he probably wouldn't be with Wheat Growers. He graduated with a degree in business and biology during the recession, when jobs were hard to find. Still, he wanted to work. The training program allowed him to earn a paycheck while becoming qualified for an agriculture job that was available.
"I didn't have to pay for any of it," Locken said. "The company covers all the costs and travel and miles and everything."
Close to five years later, that investment has earned Wheat Growers an employee that's stuck around rural America and has no plans to leave.