Canadian ag labour resolution may have a flaw

By Andrew Joseph, Editor

Making do, is a mantra those in the ag industry know all too well.

It could be the weather—too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry—input costs of fuel, and fertilizer—or the timeworn complaint of simply not having enough people to work the land. It doesn’t matter what the situation is, you just have to continue making do.

Unfortunately for Canada (and the US), we are in the midst of a crisis, where there is a shortage of skilled workers in the agriculture sector—a shortage that will affect farm businesses and agri-retailers. And, the ag sector as a whole may not be able to make do for much longer.

In a 2020 survey, 40 percent of all Canadian primary ag employers noted they were unable to find the skilled ag personnel for open positions, including those in the retail segment.

According to the report, this inability to find the necessary labour caused the ag industry to suffer earning losses—i.e., possible earnings—of $2.9 billion in sales. As a comparison, the report noted the Canadian ag industry lost $1.5 billion in sales in 2014.

For decades, youth have left the harsh realities of farm life to more urban areas for education and/or employment opportunities. Working on the farm was seen as difficult, uneducated work, because often in the decades past, farm education was more important to the farmers than school education.

While ag-family youth continue their trek venturing off the farm to further their education, many are coming back to work in the industry.

To “replace” those who leave, we have used the migrant workers who have travelled to work in our fields for the past 60 years or so. Without their help harvesting crops, both Canadian farmers and agri-retail businesses would be less successful than what they are today.

But even with the influx of workers who have travelled to Canada as labourers, it’s not enough to stop the bleeding.

According to Statistics Canada, and a report prepared by Yan Zhang, Yuri Ostrovsky, and Amélie Arsenault, “Since the mid-1960s, agriculture has been one of the main recipients of foreign workers in Canada, and several programs are available to agriculture firms looking to fill their employment shortages by hiring foreign workers (Preibisch 2010; Meyer-Robinson and Burt 2016).”

More numbers from the StatsCan report show that approximately 613,200 foreign nationals in Canada held work permits in 2016 (Lu and Hou 2019), which was more than double the 294,000 foreign workers in 2005.

While there are still concerns that Canada does not have enough migrant workers, technological advances in the ag sector also mean that fewer such workers are required.

What this all means is that the Canadian agricultural sector is actively seeking skilled labour.

But there is a ray of hope.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) and its partners the Canadian Federation of Agriculture (CFA) and Food and Beverage Canada (FBC-ABC) have developed a report on the development of an industry-led National Workforce Strategic Framework for Agriculture and Food & Beverage Manufacturing.

With funding from the Government of Canada’s Future Skills Centre, the National Workforce Strategic Framework is looking to formulate a comprehensive plan for Canada’s agriculture and food and beverage manufacturing sectors to achieve workforce stability by 2030.

While some pundits will scoff at how having to resolve “everything by 2030” is akin to some magical cabal-manufactured number, the desire to rectify the problem by starting now is certainly a better idea than waiting until our options for building on the existing workforce run out.

The Strategic Framework is looking to solidly identify the root causes of the industry’s labour shortages and skills gaps, identify concrete actions to address these shortfalls, and set meaningful goals and timelines to measure our progress and success.

The Strategic Framework seeks to complement the efforts of the Government of Canada, including the development of a National Agricultural Labour Strategy by the Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, federal Minister of Agriculture and Agri-food.

The Strategic Framework recognizes Five Strategic Pillars for a strong and sustainable workforce:

    1. Perception and awareness of industry and careers;
    2. People and workplace culture;
    3. Immigration and foreign workers;
    4. Skill development;
    5. Automation and technology.

Each of these pillars will have a Work Group assigned, and those within each work group will attempt to create resolutions to the specific issues involved.

Although all five pillars are equally important, Pillar No. 1 may be at the crux of the issue.

Perception and awareness—where do we begin? Aside from those involved in the ag industry, and those who may know someone directly involved in agriculture, the average person—whether they live in urban or rural environs—is unaware of the myriad of career opportunities.

Ag has an image problem. At least that is something on which we can all agree.

Pillar #2 would, on the outside, appear to also be related to image concerns.

Pillar #3—Immigration and foreign workers is an intriguing point. The people who are willing to leave their own country for greater opportunities in another country aren’t looking for a lateral move. They are looking to make a better life for themselves and their family.

For example, why does someone migrate to a new country with a language barrier, strange customs, unfamiliar food, religious differences, and a high cost of living to become a farm labourer?

There are educational opportunities for their children—but the conundrum exists as a farm labourer would prefer if their children studied to be something other than a labourer.

Canada’s mosaic on the outside is welcoming to all regardless of colour, religion, sexuality, etc. But if we are honest with ourselves, it’s not Utopia. Truthfully, nothing is. We like to believe Canada is one of the best—if not the best—countries for people to come to and get ahead in life.

The point regarding immigration is that people who come to work as labourers in Canada will usually not provide a constant stream of familial sons and daughters to the sector—unless they become the owner/operator of an ag business. Otherwise, the ag lineage stops there.

As such, a constant stream of new immigrants will need to be convinced to come and work in the ag sector—and again, we’re not talking about migrant labourers at this time. And, if they are skilled labourers, so much the better.

With social media and the Internet et al, immigrants are better able to see and decide where they might want to go. Would it be prudent to offer incentives to those seeking employment in the Canadian ag industry? If we know who is coming, should we offer English/French language instruction before they arrive? Do we provide adequate housing and furnishings as part of a subsidized housing plan providing them with the option to purchase? Could we set up ag scholarship opportunities for their children to encourage them to continue in the sector? Should we do the same for our Canadian farm kids?

Incentives work.

But, before any of the workgroups tries to resolve any of the Five Strategic Pillars identified by the Strategic Framework, there is one single issue that will derail all efforts.

The Problem No One Talks About

Let’s not drag this out. The problem with all of these wonderful efforts to resolve the problem of Canadian ag labour shortages is that no one knows what the jobs are.

It’s difficult to create a positive outlook on anything if the people who need to be impressed upon—be it immigrants looking for a fresh start, or Canadian youth trying to determine what career path they should follow—do not know enough or know nothing at all about the industry particulars.

While a dairy farmer may be an expert in all things dairy, and a carrot farmer an expert in all things tapered and orange, do people outside of one ag segment know what makes another industry tick?

The answer is no. Furthermore, neither do those outside of the ag industry—those people you are trying to convince that ag jobs are worthwhile and rewarding career options.

You can tell people that Canadian ag is the best career in the world (pillar 1), ensure everyone knows about the high-tech advancements (pillar 2), encourage people from other countries to bring their skill set to the Canadian ag sector (pillar 3), reveal that there are growth opportunities (pillar 4), and encourage more businesses to provide the latest and greatest Canadian inventions to help propel Canada back to the leaderboard of ag tech (pillar 5).

But unless we create an ever-evolving list of the TYPES of jobs available in every ag sector, we will fail in this resolution regardless of our efforts.

Canada needs to create and promote an accessible list of all the jobs in the ag sector.

It’s not just all the jobs available, rather it is a list of all the jobs, period. It should also include the ag businesses that supply and sell inputs that farmers use—the agri-retailers, of course. It should even include those who create mechanical technologies be it the seeds that are planted or the tractors or hoses used by farmers.

Is there an opportunity for people to get jobs designing, manufacturing, repairing, or maintaining those machines? And what about those who analyze the data?

For accuracy, it would be best if a duck farmer explained the nuances of duck farming, the same way it would be prudent for a chicken farmer to do the same for chicken farming, etc.

Specialists in each field need to be involved, which also means input from all the specific associations, including CAAR.

We’re all in this together.

Once a list of jobs and the skills required has been compiled—only then can we begin to go to our agencies and partners to create ways of enticing people into the ag field.

That should be the first short-term goal.

Once we can provide a listing of all the job types seen in all aspects of agriculture then we can look at the other short-, medium-, and long-term goals outlined in the report.

One of the ways the report states that Canada will know it has been successful in this endeavour is if a “catalogue of existing resources is maintained.”

That’s great, but it doesn’t say that it is creating such a catalogue if there is already such a catalogue, or where it might be accessible to online visitors.

The National Workforce Strategic Framework for Agriculture and Food & Beverage Manufacturing is a wonderful way to look at eliminating labour shortages—they just aren’t beginning at the optimal starting point. </p

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