Karen Paulus, who owns Mt. Airy Orchards in Dillsburg, PA, with her husband Dan, believes the employees who are the face of the business should be happy and pleasant, willing to be silly and work hard.

At the recent Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Paulus explained her unique hiring process.

“We do group auditions three times a year,” said Paulus. The concept allows her to obtain a lot of information about applicants. “It has freed up so much of my time. It’s easy to teach someone how to plant lettuce or pick fruit but I want to know more. What’s their personality like? How engaging are they? Are they fun? When I talk one-on-one with someone, I don’t necessarily get that.”

The hiring process begins with a list of available jobs, brief job descriptions and the minimum age requirement for each job. There’s also an opportunity for applicants to upload a 30-second video to introduce themselves. Applicants submit the application electronically.

To advertise, Paulus places posters in the farm store and at a local university. Paulus created a QR code with a link to the application. Information is also dispersed through social media posts, bag stuffers and the farm’s 13,000-name email list.

Paulus sorts through applications and invites candidates to the 90-minute group audition. “When they come here, they get a name tag with their first name and a number on it,” she said. “The number tells us the order in which people arrived so we know who showed up early or late.”

They begin with a quick tour of the farm and some games and activities. “Puzzling is one of my favorite activities,” said Paulus. “I use 24-piece puzzles, remove two pieces and put those two pieces in other puzzles. Each puzzle now has two pieces that belong to a different group’s puzzle. I tell the group their goal is to put the puzzle together as quickly as they can.” Through this activity, she can see which applicants are interested in helping others and who’s more focused on winning for themselves.

Group interview questions are presented to groups of four to six applicants. “My managers ask questions without directly looking at anyone,” said Paulus. “They’re simply reading the question without eye contact to see who speaks up and who doesn’t.”

All applicants are given a math quiz that must be completed without a calculator. “If they don’t do well on the quiz, it doesn’t mean I won’t hire them,” said Paulus. “It means I’m not going to put them in charge of money.”

At the end of the group audition, each applicant is asked to write down something they learned about the farm, something they learned during the group interview and about themselves and anything else they want to share. “If they can’t tell me something they learned about the farm, it says they don’t really care and they aren’t paying attention,” Paulus said.

Throughout the process, managers score applicants on various aspects. “I get an average for each aspect we’re scoring,” said Paulus, “then average that so at the end of the audition, I have one number for each person. I put them in order and start my offers based on that. The higher the score, the higher my managers thought of someone.”

Since Mt. Airy Orchard devotes a certain number of days to their fall festival, Paulus asks recruits to commit to being available 55% of the days. She also asks candidates if they’re available most Saturdays and Sundays. “If the answer is ‘no,’ that’s okay, but I need them for one or the other,” she said. “I also ask about any outside activities they’re involved in that might interfere with a work schedule.”

Within 24 hours of the group audition, applicants receive an email indicating whether or not they’re invited to work. All applicants who are offered a job are invited to a group orientation about a week after the audition. Applicants under 18 are asked to bring a parent with them to orientation. Paulus believes it’s important to not ignore applicants who aren’t accepted and tries to keep them as customers or future applicants. Each one receives a thank you note and an electronic gift card to the orchard.

Group orientation includes food, which Paulus believes is an important aspect of every employee meeting. “It’s all paid time,” she said. “We go over expectations, requests for days off and payroll. We also have video training, and I indicate to new hires which videos are required for each position. There may be a few hours of videos I want them to watch within the first two weeks of them working for us.” She also conducts on-site training and reviews an employee expectation guide.

Scheduling time off is one of the most stressful aspects of the business, but in over 20 years, Paulus hasn’t denied a time off request if it came before the schedule was made. “I want parents to hear me say that so when their child says they can’t attend a family reunion because they had to work, that isn’t the case,” she said. “Parents know there’s a two-week timeframe for time off, and I will always honor requests.”

New recruits are given a 22-question quiz that all staff must answer. “They keep taking it until they get at least a 21 out of 22,” said Paulus. “It isn’t meant to trick them – it’s to reinforce what we think is important.” Questions are “big picture” items and not difficult to answer. A video on how to use the online scheduling system also includes a follow-up a quiz because Paulus believes employees should fully understand how to submit time off requests.

Paulus has the first group interviews in May and hires quite a few employees at that time. For those who aren’t in the top scoring section, she offers autumn employment. Another group interview is in August, and a third in September. Because she relies heavily on the local university’s returning students for employees, the September audition is necessary.

Paulus emphasized the positive aspects of working at Mt. Airy Orchards. “We like to have fun, and we always have food at meetings and trainings,” she said. “We have ‘thank you’ incentives during busy fall weekends. When it’s really busy, they’re working hard, so I’ll put a note up to let all staff know they can take home a free pumpkin, a dozen donuts, a gallon of cider. If it’s cold, everyone gets free hot drinks.”

by Sally Colby