Are  Companies Training Their  Planters ?

- by  Mahbob Abdullah

In many ways the planter today has a lot more to do than when I first began planting.

In those days it was to attend muster, walk in the field and let the driver take me to yet another harvesting area. By 10 am it was back for breakfast in the house, and then more walking and checking until past one o’clock. I would come home for lunch and a nap. I went to office at three and often a dozen things cropped up on people problems apart from the figures I had to see. The figures were written in the familiar hand of the senior conductor, and calculated on a Facit machine, while an old typewriter clacked away in the next room, with long pauses. By 5 pm it was often to the football field to cheer a team at match. On occasions I went to the staff club for tennis and billiards afterwards. Then it was home to the family and dinner and then early to bed. In one day I would have talked to a lot of people. That was how the team was built.

Not all the planters worked in the same style of course. There were many types; the more impetuous planter who did things his own way, yelled and screamed, but it worked. We had the methodical planter who arrived to check the field-work at exactly the same time each day. Probably he would be just as orderly in the office. There was the silent one whose effective weapon was the word “No!” They were all successful and in the isolation and autonomy of their work, they had developed their own style and earned nicknames for themselves.

There was  Tuan Gila who was moody, and he was succeeded  by Tuan Batu and before him  there was Tuan Kayu who was not very bright.  And so on. The workers could remember them and all their follies. The planter’s pay was high and the areas he managed were small.  Promotion was usually by filling dead man’s shoes, as the estates did not expand fast, and the acting manager’s circuit was a long one.

For the less diligent, the companies had their own culling system, by sending them to some of the formidable senior managers.  These famous figures were known for their penchant for sacking planters they did not like.  Each company had managers who were feared for that. Some aspiring planters did not even reach the estate but got turned back at the railway station because he drank too much on the train. Some were told not to come back from leave. Tenure of service was uncertain with three-year contracts. It was an incentive to work hard.

Today of course the planter has to cope with new problems. He has to know how to use the computer, word processing and spreadsheets There are new labour laws and environmental issues, and head office can call him in an instant. Yet the drop-out rate is low, and with rapid expansion, many were  promoted without proper basic foundation. Perhaps companies are not giving the right training.

In many cases the priorities on training are wrong. Often we hear a young planter talk glibly on strategic plans, paradigm shift, and quantum leaps, and yet he does not know what one loose fruit is worth. Has his company taught him how to calculate this? Has his company taught him to go out and follow the harvesters’ paths and count and record on a card the loose fruit missed per palm, and work out the loss to the estate? Can he work out the value per bunch based on last week’s palm oil price?  Does he know last week’s palm oil price?

The planter should know these details early, so that he can link his tasks to profits.

As a result of inadequate training and ignorance, productivity has dropped in many companies. Extraction rates have declined and cost have moved up. At presentations the reasons we hear of are likely to be issues which are beyond our control. Those that can be controlled are played down.

Are planters given enough training before they are given their tasks? We know that training is dropped when an urgent assignment comes up.  Subsequently the planter receives training courses on an ad hoc basis, and as a result there are gaps in his education.

Often in the past, these gaps were filled in at social gatherings, after hours at the Club, or at the Manager’s house, as often he would like to talk. There were long and quiet evenings. In a way this was mentoring and the young assistant went home after learning a thing or two each day. Today such discussions hardly ever happen. The manager may have his own set of problems, and probably in the evening he is out of the estate. The regular discussions are gone. The young planters do not get adequate guidance, and he is not encouraged to attend Incorporated Society of Planters meetings where they have the opportunity to interact with planters from other companies. Neither are they being urged to join the ISP from the start; the ISP can provide them with a good part of their training.

Even among the same level, the planter mixes less than before, partly because of an increasing consciousness of race. Companies too do not heed racial quotas, and the interaction among races is minimal. Probably his standard of English is poor. He is too embarrassed to mix with other races. For the same reason that his English is poor, he avoids reading in English and he finds it hard to understand his text books.

Book learning can combine knowledge with field experience. Both these can equip one if he wants to present papers even at international conferences let alone at national seminar. Many planters have views that they can share on these occasions. They had done so in the past. But now the stage is controlled mainly by researchers. The planter can go on stage again if he improves his English and professional knowledge.

He can start with gaining the basic knowledge which would cover leadership and cost control, record keeping, report writing, retraining and retaining employees. He has to know the story behind the figures before him. He will know the cost benefit if he thinks he should spend more money. He should be able to break down the concept of productivity to basics, and he should know that cutting costs is not just about reducing spending. He should be able to think things through, and find the right reasons.

For example, he may say that long harvesting rounds are due to a national shortage of labour.  If he says so then he has to tell why workers are available to other estates. He should work out the full costs of losing his workers. What does he need to do to retain them?  How cost-effective will it be, including spending time and money on improving social and living conditions?  Has he been trained to work that out?

A company should also insist that the young planter should have with him certain equipment that make him a better planter, including a calculator, a pocket note-book, a knife and tape measure. Not all would comply despite being told.  But I knew one planter who would festoon himself with them only when I came to visit. I was glad for at least he had made a start.

There is a case for companies to engage good retired planters to train the young ones so that they can impart their knowledge and experience, so the companies and their planters can benefit.  In this way the trainers can drive home the company’s message. The Incorporated Society of Planters can arrange courses to suit the company’s needs. The ISP has the resources.

Companies can train their good planters to be prepared for the next job. Often this is not done. When a planter is promoted to estate manager, he finds that many things in the office are new to him. It would be a lot better if he has training in advance so he can hit the ground running.

Even at estate manager level, the planter is no more than half-trained. He is not familiar on how the mills process his fruit. He wants to send the highest tonnage, and extraction rates are not his problem. His bonus is not linked to extraction rates. The mill engineer is wary of him and they tend to fight a lot. Both of them can gain in their outlook if they visit a refinery and see how their oil is used. The refinery requires oil of a certain quality from them. But most often they do not want to know.

The planter has very little contact with marketing. He may get to listen to the talk on it at the company’s annual conference, but he has not seen the marketing office or talked seriously to the traders. He should see how the traders have to battle with decisions that can make a difference to the profits of the company and his bonus. He can see how his production ends in sales. If oil prices are low then he can see how profits are imperilled, and he can go back and cut costs with a stronger will.

As the planter has limited training in business, such as in marketing and finance, he is often not considered for promotion in the corporate ladder. Someone from outside is brought in. The company is fortunate if the person can adjust his management approach quickly to suit the plantations business. Usually a company does not want to stand in the way of a person merely because he is a planter. It may just be that there is no good planter near the top to choose from.

The good ones may have left for better pay and benefits. Today the salaries of planters in many companies are low. No allowance is made for hardship, lost opportunities, and family separation. A planter used to get much more than what his friend earned working in town, and he was proud of it. For that he knew he had to work very hard and for long hours. Some companies paid very big bonuses for good ideas that paid off. Today it hardly happens. A planter was given dignity, independence, authority and autonomy. He held himself with pride and his morale was high. Housing and transport facilities were excellent. He had a car, and he was given a driver so that his mind could deal with estate problems rather than with potholes in the road. His wife provided stability in the house, while their children went away to boarding school, in some cases all paid for. Now in many companies those benefits are gone. His wife lives far away in town and he pays the rent and the school fees for the children. He becomes an absent husband and father burdened by the expenses of two houses. When problems with money and the children grow too big for the wife, and she needs his help, he cannot concentrate. These are signals for the good hard-driving planter to exit. The income of the estate has a lot to do with his skills, and if his successor is say five percent less efficient, then that comes up to a lot of money per year. Over many years, his departure is a great loss to the company.

On the other hand, plantation directors who are also owners tend to develop their planters better than others. It is a lesson to watch them train, and coach, and then take a lot of trouble to keep their best planters. They go to great lengths in remembering minor details that bowl them over, and having long chats so the planter does not leave, apart from giving the special increments. They know how much a good planter is worth.

All in all there has to be a re-think. Companies must check again the selection, training and treatment of planters from top to bottom.

At the bottom, the pay of trainees should be raised to attract the best people.  Hire enough to enable training to be completed, and allow for culling and wastage. Planters with high potential must be trained to sharpen their skills and given room to develop their characters. They should be sent for courses including the Outward Bound School in order to develop their leadership skills. Many planters should visit the best estates and mills in Indonesia and try to achieve the same level of yield and extraction rates. Rewards should clearly reflect their efforts when they succeed.

The outstanding planters should attend fast-track courses here and overseas. They should be trained to give effective presentations. Some should learn how to train others, so that soon each company will have highly-skilled planters at all levels. Together they can raise productivity again. The added profit can be far higher than the training costs.

Note: The writer wishes to thank Mr Emerson Liau and Mr W T Perera of the Incorporated Society of Planters for their contribution of ideas for this article, which has been prompted by the concern of the ISP on the need for training of planters today.

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