Help Wanted: KEEP Helping Kentucky Farms With Strategies To Improve Employee Retention In A Tough Labor Market - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Help Wanted: KEEP Helping Kentucky Farms With Strategies To Improve Employee Retention In A Tough Labor Market

The signs are everywhere, and it's no longer just “Help Wanted” hanging in the windows. A “Closed due to lack of staff” sign has become an increasingly common sight at local restaurants and retail stores as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the labor market.

The equine industry has faced this issue for years, and the pandemic has only made it worse. Whether workers are available or not, however, the horses' needs remain the same.

Labor shortages are addressed in any number of ways, but most focus on building the pool of potential employees. In the equine industry, that has included efforts like the NTRA's lobby to increase labor visa caps and grassroots programs to improve working conditions on the backstretch.

Kentucky, meanwhile, has also embraced the exact opposite strategy: working with employers to address how to improve targeting and job conditions for potential employees. It has led to ideas like experimenting with schedule flexibility in order to improve employee retention, as well as a growing awareness of the need for upward mobility within the industry.

The strategy evolved as the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce was working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a new project that centered on understanding employers' needs first, and working backward from there. Kentucky is one of three states that adopted the program on a statewide level, focusing on high-demand industries like healthcare, manufacturing, and transportation.

In the midst of that implementation, the Kentucky Equine Education Project (KEEP) came forward to join the project: Laurie Mays was hired as the Equine Talent Pipeline Project Manager.

“I'm a facilitator; it's a heavily employer-led initiative,” Mays explained. “I connect a lot of dots, but it's what the employers want to tackle. We help from a business and a project management aspect of that.”

Mays began by creating several different collaboratives, one of which involved Thoroughbred farms–ranging from family-owned to the Godolphins of the world–taking a hard look at their own assumptions about recruitment strategies. 

“A lot of the equine employers do a lot within the equine business realm, but not a lot in the greater business world in terms of learning from and understanding different things from other types of businesses,” said Mays. “They weren't in tune with local career centers, extension offices, etc. – and thus they were missing those opportunities. 

“So many workforce struggles are the same, irrespective of industry, and we can learn a lot from each other. I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel, but to create more of a power in numbers type of thing.

“I think I've pushed a lot of them out of their comfort zone, outside of the equine silo. The greater business world needs to know that the equine industry is there, that they have a lot of infiltration into a lot of these other industries.”


One of the biggest things Mays heard at the beginning of the project was that employees were leaving due to a lack of flexibility in their schedules. The idea of moving to a five-day work week, as opposed to six, was floated, but it was not immediately popular.

Most farms said that it was not financially feasible to add enough staff to switch to a five-day work week. Mays worked with them in an exercise to compare the cost of switching to the five-day week versus the turnover cost of having to train new employees.

“Out of the 11 facilities that did that exercise, all actually fared better financially if they went to the five-day work week,” said Mays. “A lot of them said, 'I just assumed that it was more expensive,' but they had never taken paper-to-pencil to actually figure it out.”

A couple farms piloted a five-day work week program, and did, in fact, find that staff stayed longer with the option for a more flexible schedule. One farm in particular increased wages with a rotating calendar schedule. The farm wound up paying individuals less overall, but employees were able to have two consecutive days off which rotated – every 5 weeks they had a complete weekend off.

“Obviously we've had some pushback discussion with some farms,” Mays said. “Several people said, 'Well, if the employees aren't passionate about wanting to work in this industry, then they need to go somewhere else.' Well, they are.

“In my opinion, the five-day work week will not be an option that they can ignore for much longer, but it's a culture shift. I tell them: 'The way you've done it is not working, so we need to think outside the box.' We've had some great progressive farms, and when it works for them other farms will try it, but it's not been an easy sell.”

How Many?

Since the equine industry is based heavily on relationships and word of mouth information transfer, there isn't a good handle on agriculture data because the state has never had to collect it before.

The Thoroughbred Farm Collaborative worked to develop a data collection project to obtain concrete data detailing the state of the Thoroughbred industry workforce. 

“We want to dial down to what their needs are: how many people do they need, and why are they losing them?” Mays said. “We need to get past any assumptions that the employers may have.”

The data collected from the survey, which is currently in the process of being analyzed, will form an industry baseline to enhance existing projects and identify new programs and needed implementation of initiatives. It will help the collaborative determine where to focus additional resources: whether that be involvement in K-12 school systems, community colleges, vocational training programs, or even the department of corrections, the foster care system, people coming out of recovery, etc.

Upward Mobility

The Thoroughbred Farm Collaborative also recognized the need to understand the wishes and concerns of their staff to assist with recruitment and elevate their facilities. The collaborative formed a subcommittee committed to researching, understanding, creating, and implementing a farm management leadership program based on employee feedback. 

The long-term goal is to educate and support upper management to ensure they are good leaders, helping create a positive workplace culture, and allowing better places to work for the populations coming through newly formed pipelines within the industry.

One popular topic has been the massive number of students that come out of four-year equine-specific programs each year, because those students are not typically interested in filling the positions the farms desperately need. 

“We are working to facilitate open conversations between employers and educators, trying to solve this issue from both sides,” said Mays. “Obviously it's a slow process for that, and the mindset of “what is education” has to change. It used to be that experience/time in was valued above all, but we have to start realizing that people that have gone through a four-year degree may not have the experience, but their catch-up time is much, much quicker. 

“That's not been the way that farms have recognized experience in the past. Part of it is also that the industry 100 percent understands that they have not done a good job in creating and maintaining career pathways. As employers, they don't do a good job of helping them to move forward – not out of a mindset that they don't want them to, they're just not used to it. The reality is that the majority of people are not going to remain entry-level grooms for 30 years.”

To that end, the various collaboratives have worked to develop career-pathway documents, split into different industry sectors. They begin at entry-level positions, detailing average annual salary, education or on-the-job experience required, etc. 

The career-pathway documents are available to view here

“At the end of the day, we can't just rely on passion for the job, because the equine industry is competing for the same people as all these other industries,” Mays said. “You have to be a competitive employer: you're not hiring a groom, you're hiring a future division manager.

“It's really hard to grasp, because we've become so desperate to hold onto the people that we have. I try to use this as an example: we have implemented a training program for grooms to get their Commercial Driving Licenses. Yes, the farm may lose a groom, but then that person is a very experienced person who is then transporting your horses. At the same time, that's a great recruiting tool for you, because the grooms have an opportunity to learn and progress to a higher-paying job. Turnover isn't as scary if it's planned.”

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Two Parts To The Equation

It is also important to educate future employees about the opportunities in the equine industry. 

To that end, KEEP brought Annise Montplaisir into the fold. Her co-developed grassroots initiative Amplify Horse Racing has, since 2019, been working to fulfill its mission to provide an entry point to the Thoroughbred industry for youth and young adults.

Montplaisir's position with KEEP as the Equine Education Coordinator complements both that and Mays' position, helping to bridge the gap between employers and potential employees. Amplify sponsors monthly virtual seminars about different industry careers, a podcast along those same lines, free educational tours focusing on careers and understanding what goes into the industry, and a developed mentorship program for young adults.

“Amplify showcases job progression and industry pathways to newcomers through our virtual and in-person programming, which enlists the help of existing industry professionals to speak about their current careers and the job pathways they took to reach that point,” Montplaisir said. “Additionally, one of our goals with the mentorship program is for mentors to discuss career pathways with mentees and help them develop an understanding of the current working environment, hours and pay in the industry. 

“On the flip side, we also invite mentees to share their expectations for the kind of working environment, pay and upward mobility they want and need from a job. Hopefully that kind of dialogue will be helpful to employers and encourage more innovation within the industry.”

Next Steps?

Due in large part to Mays' and Montplaisir's work, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce has recognized the vital role played by the state's equine industry over the past three years. Mays has since been made a full-time employee of the CoC, as opposed to KEEP, showing that the state government understands the value of continuing her work within one of its signature industries.

“This initiative has been around for three years, and it has grown a lot,” said Mays. “However, there are still a lot of farms that don't know what we're doing, or maybe are skeptical of what we're doing.

“Word of mouth is really what spreads it around. We have an open-door policy for any farm that wants to be involved, and getting buy-in from the farms really comes from each other.”

For more information and how your farm can get involved in the equine workforce initiative, check out the website here

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