What’s New in the Canadian Ag Labour Market?

Andrew Joseph, Editor

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) has released an executive report entitled Sowing Seeds of Change. It provides an agricultural labour market forecast until 2030.

It’s not quite mysticism but rather a scientific examination of trends based on the responses to its many Canadian ag surveys.

We must first acknowledge this: Canada’s agricultural sector is amid a labour shortage.

Based on data from the Conference Board of Canada and its Model of Occupations, Skills, and Technology (MOST), over 28,000 agriculture jobs were left unfilled during peak 2022. The ag sector includes crop production, animal production, support services, and agricultural wholesale industries.

This means those few people have been asked to work harder (or even more efficiently) to complete their jobs. Were all aspects of the agriculture sector successful? No.

According to the CAHRC, “labour shortages caused a 3.7 percent decline in sales in 2022, which, when applied to total sales in agriculture, resulted in an estimated $3.5 billion in lost sales.”

This number was based on CAHRC’s Employer Survey 2023, with the total sales in agriculture coming from cash receipts per Statistics Canada—though it does not include lost sales by support services or wholesale industries. In other words, the losses in Canadian agriculture are worse than the numbers above.

In 2022, the CAHRC surveys pinned our ag labour at 351,000 Canadian workers and 71,000 temporary foreign and seasonal workers.

In 2022, the ag sector saw a labour shortage of 7.4 percent, which was even worse than the Canada-wide average of 5.9 percent.

According to the CAHRC survey, two out of every five agricultural employers needed more workers for all their open jobs. Worse still, one-third of all ag employers said they did not receive “any applications from Canadians during the hiring season, and 28 percent received just one or two applications.”

No matter how one slices it, these labour shortcomings played havoc with “lost sales, production delays, cancelled expansions, as well as excessive stress on owners and staff” already in place.

Just as the trade sectors throughout North America have been struggling to attract new talent to their varied industries—plumbing, truck technicians, HVAC, etc.—the ag sectors are struggling to find qualified Canadian workers.

While those within the CAHRC survey said they constantly endeavour to hire job seekers from Canada, fewer Canadians seem interested in working within the industry.

That’s why the agriculture sector in Canada (and the US) has increasingly turned to foreign workers. And, regardless of what you think, Canada’s foreign worker contingent grew from 2017 onwards.

Foreign workers in primary agriculture increased by over 30 percent from 2017 through 2022—53,842 people to 70,365.

Crop production was unsurprisingly the biggest employer of foreign workers, though the largest sector of foreign worker growth was seen in the poultry and egg, beef, dairy, and swine segments.

Forecast: Labour Shortage Continues
According to the crystal ball-gazing CAHRC’s report on the agriculture labour market forecast, the agency expects “that the domestic labour gap in Canada’s agricultural sector will increase 15 percent over the next eight years, from 87,700 in 2023 to 101,100 by 2030 during peak season.”

The report cited the continued aging of the Canadian population as a critical reason for the decline in labour.

Well, it’s labour retirements without enough young people entering the sector.

The report added, “The aging population will continue to decrease the availability of Canadian workers in agriculture industries, with over 85,300 retirements expected over the next eight years—equaling almost 30 percent of the current Canadian workforce in agriculture.”

The report also suggested that 80 percent of these “otherwise vacant positions” would be filled by foreign workers. Even still, CAHRC said it means 22,200 unfilled job vacancies will remain unfilled during peak season by 2030.

The report said that greenhouse and nursery production, fruit and tree nut farming, and vegetable farming were the industries where Canadians remained unlikely to fill job vacancies.

Crop-producing industries are expected to see the most significant gap in labour fulfillment, with an increase of “17 percent between 2023 and 2030, reaching 80,900 in 2030.

“This will leave 15,200 vacant positions in crop production in 2030.

For animal production, the report said that “the peak domestic labour gap is forecast to experience a more modest nine percent increase from 2023 to 2030, leading to nearly 4,100 vacant positions by 2030.

“Additionally, the domestic labour gap in agriculture wholesale industries is expected to ease slightly, decreasing three percent between 2023 and 2030. Nevertheless, over 1,100 vacancies will remain by 2030.”

Job vacancies are expected to decrease in those agricultural businesses needing harvest or livestock labourers through 2030.

It won’t only be because more foreign labour will be used but also because of upgraded automation—perhaps more precision agriculture equipment—and gains in labour productivity.

Labour-intensive ag jobs will continue to see the most significant job vacancies by 2030.

To resolve this, the CAHRC warns, “It will be essential to implement targeted strategies to address labour shortages in occupations with specific skill sets within the agriculture sector.”

Building a Better Workforce
Getting more people to commit to employment within the ag industry is tough.

In the past, farm families would hope that the eldest son would take over the family business, with the younger siblings going into other businesses after studying more in college or university. Daughters were expected to get married into an agricultural family or not—it didn’t matter.

Yes, the world was the way it was.

But closer to the present, farm families discovered that their children didn’t want to remain on the farm. This meant that the business was sold—sometimes to another local area farmer, other times to a real estate speculator.

But while more Canadian youth are willing to stay on the farm in the present era, this is still not enough to stem the shortfall of ag labour.

The obvious solution would be to convince youth outside the rural community that it can be a well-paid and fulfilling occupation.

It’s tough, but it can be done. Despite knowing where the gas goes in his car, this article’s writer’s son is learning to be a truck technician. People will cross over into agriculture if they can be adequately trained and know they can step into a well-paying career.

The CAGHC report said that part of that is changing how people outside of rural communities think about the ag sector. It’s not uneducated plaid-wearing hicks mucking out a pig sty.

Although it’s not true, that perception persists.

CAGHC said Canada needs to improve the overall perception of agriculture and that promising careers within it are possible and will help build a sustainable future workforce. “Doing so can cultivate an understanding of agriculture’s role in securing both local and global food supplies and dispel the misconception that the only work in the sector is as a farmer.”

It’s true. Ag retailers, seed technicians, scientists, drone and mechanical equipment manufacturers, and technicians, to name a few occupations or science-based opportunities as agronomists or swine researchers.

We need to do a better job of “supporting and expanding hands-on learning experiences and exposure to career opportunities within agriculture,” which the report said will be critical to inspiring Canadians to consider a career within the ag community.

Although the report doesn’t present ways the sector can do that, marketing agriculture should start at a young age. It needs to consistently inundate elementary and high school students who will soon enough have to choose a career pathway as they graduate and either look for a job or further their education at a university or college.

How do you make agriculture cool?

In 2001, the Dairy Farmers of Ontario released “Milk Rap” as a television commercial. It was fantastic, hip, and got people talking about milk—which was all an advertisement can do. Go look it up on the Internet.

Kids today don’t watch much television—they prefer social media sites online for their news, views, and ideas.

That’s where the ag industry must create and post content to interest young Canadians. But that’s just this writer’s opinion.

For worker retention, the CAHRC report suggested that the ag industry develop “good HR management practices and a positive work environment play an important role in retaining workers.”

The CAAR Communicator magazine has been incorporating helpful HR tips for years.

The report indicated that “almost 30 percent of workers said their main reason to leave would be poor management practices, and similarly, 34 percent said good management practices are what keep them working in agriculture.

“Stakeholders agree that it is important to educate employers about the benefits of HR training and help employers find the right HR support and programs.”

Why is this important? The CAHRC said it “can bridge the gap between employers’ awareness and the resources available, ultimately fostering better HR practices and workforce development.

The other way to gain more permanent labour for the agriculture sector is to boost our immigration numbers.

From the moment non-indigenous people began working the land, immigration has been how Canada grew its population.

Not quite the US version of 40 acres and a mule, the new Government of Canada began in 1870 to offer $160 acres of land for $10 to immigrants if they would settle in Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan and do some farming, as one of the criteria.

The federal government stopped (mainly) the sale of cheap Crown land in the 1930s, though some small towns continued the tradition of increasing their population.

CAAR isn’t saying that’s what the federal government needs to do, but it has been effective for the towns.

For example, in 2013, Saint-Louis-de-Blandford, an hour southwest of Québec City, wanted to increase its population to 900 people. It purchased a large amount of land and divided it into 40 plots. Each plot was accessible to anyone willing to move there and build a house.

The hitch—which prevented many land speculators from cashing in—was that buyers had to put down a $1,000 downpayment and commit to building a valued $125,000 house within a year, and at completion, the town would refund the downpayment.

Reston, Manitoba, did something similar, adding 50 people to its previous 500—an increase of 10 percent.

Each town trying the land “giveaway” is doing so slightly differently from the others, but the point is that many Canadian cities, from coast to coast, are willing to experiment.

While that example did not specifically target growth for the ag sector labour pool, it did show the creativity of attracting people to the municipality.

As for immigration, what can towns (and provinces and Canada) do to attract new immigrants to come and work in their neck of the so-called woods?

The report suggested a “combined effort between government, placement agencies, and farm operators is needed to find individuals with relevant skills and experience and encourage them to settle in rural communities where there is agriculture work.”

It continued: “In turn, this could involve offering employment, education, and cultural integration support in rural areas, not only for potential workers but also for their families.”

The report noted that there needs to be supportive apprenticeship programs that will help create a better workforce capable of attaining the technical and specialized skills required to take Canadian agriculture forward.

It’s not just for agriculture, either; it’s for other industries, too. We need to ensure that people entering the field can learn and advance to a higher level of ingenuity.

The report noted that “formalizing and promoting skilled trades within agriculture can increase the sector’s recognition for the high-skilled jobs and rewarding career opportunities it offers.”

The promotion of ag as a skilled trade is not only to attract people from other countries but also to encourage youth already here that there are viable career opportunities in the ag sector.

The viewpoint has to address equity-deserving groups such as women, visible minorities, persons with disabilities, Indigenous Canadians, and newcomers.

Although many within the agriculture community believe that fewer people are required in the sector because we are mechanizing more and more of a farm’s day-to-day operations, intelligent people will still be needed at all levels of a farm. 

And who will manufacture, maintain, or repair all of these technological marvels? Equipment is a large part of the ag scene—not just seed, soil, sun, rain, etc.

The Sowing Seeds of Change report from the CARHC acknowledges that the global agriculture sector has begun to transform itself into a more mechanized and digital industry, which has led to significant increases in labour productivity.

The adoption “of new technology, including [the aforementioned] digitization, automation, and new crop varieties, will continue to increase the sector’s productivity and competitiveness.”

But the report warns that without the effort put in now to find, train, and retain workers, Canadian agriculture may be unable to keep up with technology.

The CAHRC report summarized that “progress can be made to ensure this vital sector has the workforce needed to meet its potential through a combination of public education, training and upskilling, improved HR management practices, targeted immigration supports, and increased adoption of automation and technology.”

As the report pointed out, multiple factors surround the Canadian labour issue, and there is no single golden ticket to resolve it.

“Solving current and future challenges requires collaboration among employers, industry representatives, government agencies, and educators, among other stakeholders. By working together, various approaches can be implemented to improve the labour outlook in the agriculture sector significantly.”

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