It’s hard to walk in any business in America today without seeing a “help wanted” sign hanging in the window, and companies that move grain are not immune to the challenges of trying to quickly fill positions as harvest approaches.

Now is a critical time for barge and grain elevators to be hiring, so they have enough employees trained and ready to go for harvest. Farmers are expected to harvest the second-largest corn crop and third-largest soybean crop on record this fall.

But tow companies like Marquette Transportation Company in Paducah, Ky., are having a hard time finding employees.

“The labor pressures are everywhere,” Darin Adrian, executive vice president of the river division at Marquette Transportation Company, told Agri-Pulse.

Adrian said most of this year’s corn and soybean crops are already sold to China and other buyers.

“This crop this year is not going to go to storage, it’s going to move and it’s going to move rather quickly,” he noted.

Oscar Harrell, president for vessel operations at Ingram Barge Company, said he’s been trying to fill nearly 120 openings since March. He also typically hires more employees to help during harvest. If he can’t find enough workers, he may have to make contracts with other boats to move barge loads.

“There are several different options we follow. Sometimes we have contract outside boats to help us,” he told Agri-Pulse. However, Harrell said he’d rather not do that because of the added costs.

The Department of Agriculture is forecasting corn production at 14.8 billion bushels in 2021, a 4% boost over a year ago. Soybean production is projected 5% higher at 4.34 billion bushels.

After much of the country's grain is harvested, it is transported via truck or rail. For many of the bushels produced in the nation's Corn Belt, a barge will then carry it through the inland waterway system down the Mississippi River to the Port of New Orleans.

While the national unemployment rate for July is 5.4%, half of what it was in July 2020 at 10.2%, Kentucky’s unemployment rate for July was 4.4%. Some have been critical of supplemental unemployment assistance passed through coronavirus recovery legislation as slowing a large-scale return to the workforce; Adrian said his company is staffed at 70%.

“There’s been a lot of people who have been home for a long time and have not had to seek employment, so we’re trying to put jobs out there in front of people looking to work,” Adrian said.

The pause in joining the workforce could also be slowing the upward mobility of some who might later join the industry. Adrian said it is not uncommon to start as a deckhand and then move into a wheelhouse position such as an engineer or captain in five to seven years. Those wheelhouse positions, he noted, can pay anywhere from $180,000 to $220,000 a year.

Finding more employees is not limited to barges, grain elevator operators say it is difficult too.

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Scott Strickland, general manager at Consolidated Grain and Barge Co. in Hennepin, Ill., said no one wants to come to work and they have a complete lack of applications. He said not having an adequate number of employees lowers the company’s ability to serve the customer well.

“Most of our locations are making accommodations to counteract that, but I’d say the biggest area where we’re struggling is not seeing people return to the seat of the truck,” Strickland told Agri-Pulse. He said there were problems before not being able to find truck drivers, but the current struggles are exacerbated by the pandemic.

“It may not be the elevator, it may just be the truck to get it there,” Strickland noted.

Mike Steenhoek

Mike Steenhoek, Soy Transportation Coalition

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, said not having an adequate number of employees could have an impact on the ability to get grain to market.

“Having sufficient staffing levels, at all of these companies, these grain handlers, is a reality right now,” Steenhoek told Agri-Pulse.

While staffing is critical, Steenhoek also stated river levels need to be high to move a large supply of commodities.

Aside from labor concerns, Midwest drought conditions have created lower river levels in some areas resulting in navigation restrictions for barge transportation in water that is too shallow. Vessels need an adequate amount of water from the waterline to the bottom of the boat in order to travel carefully.

“We want to make sure we can load these barges as full as possible, and if water levels are not going to be cooperative that is something that is going to be a challenge as well,” Steenhoek said.

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