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Editor’s Take: Canada’s farm labour gap needs holistic solution

Farm labour, or rather the shortage of it, is getting much attention lately.

In recent weeks, there’s been a pilot program announced to provide temporary foreign workers (TFWs) with a path to permanent residency.

There’s also been a study that suggests farms are going high tech, automating and mechanizing at an even faster rate — which is leading to a skills mismatch at the farm level, where few are equipped to manage this new paradigm.

It’s all part of an ongoing drumbeat to do something — anything — to address this crunch.

To really address any problem we need to understand the roots of that problem, even the parts of it we don’t like or might not, at first blush, agree with.

First of all, agriculture isn’t the only sector suffering from a labour shortage. It’s nationwide, and while misery loves company, it also means the sector has to compete for available workers.

Canada now has a working-age population of 19.8 million, according to Statistics Canada. Our labour force participation rate hovers around 66 per cent, making for a total pool of potential employees around 13 million people strong. Our current national unemployment rate is 5.5 per cent, making for a group of available workers that’s only around 720,000 during this period of low unemployment.

Labour shortages are a nationwide and economy-wide phenomenon, according to a report by Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). It says 40 per cent of small- and medium-size Canadian businesses are already struggling to hire staff.

The scope of that challenge puts the agriculture sector’s own estimates of how many employees are needed and will be needed in harsh context. The Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council says agriculture currently has a worker shortfall amount to 16,500 vacancies. A 2017 report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) pegged total “agriculture sector” employment at 2.3 million people, representing 12.5 per cent of total Canadian employment.

In a 2017 report, BDC noted there’s little sign the problem will resolve itself and that “labour shortages in Canada are, in part, due to the strong demand for workers generated by robust economic growth here and around the world.”

It would seem that agriculture will continue to find itself competing for employees with the broader economy.

This means this sector needs to recognize the issues that can make their businesses less attractive employers.

First there’s the seasonality of the work. In the words of a study from the Conference Board of Canada, “… at its seasonal peak, the sector needs about 100,000 more workers than at seasonal lows.”

Those hundred thousand jobs are always going to be hard to fill. Back when rural Manitoba communities were more populous, it was more possible. But as farms have grown and youth have continued to leave rural regions, there are fewer farm kids and retired farmers to hire.

And then there’s the nature of the dominant ownership structure of primary agriculture. A farm family business is a good thing in many, many ways, but it also inevitably means there are fewer opportunities for advancement for employees of those businesses.

TFWs have been used widely to address this worker shortfall. A Conference Board of Canada report estimates that “… three-quarters of the sector’s labour gap has been filled by temporary foreign workers.”

In many ways, TFWs are an excellent fit for the seasonal jobs and they attract people who in many cases aren’t looking to settle here permanently, but rather want to support family abroad, miss the Canadian winters and live well at home the balance of the year.

Few are likely to want to uproot those families to move them to a barracks building adjacent to the farm operation they’re working on.

That’s why the federal government’s pilot project in agriculture is a bit puzzling. While there are surely some agriculture TFWs who would welcome the opportunity, it doesn’t seem to match much of the reality on the ground.

One wonders if the inevitable result of this would simply be those workers joining the trail of people heading out of small towns to seek the bright lights and better opportunities of urban Canada.

Most new Canadians, left to their own devices, appear to gravitate towards larger urban centres where they can find community. It’s possible to foster that sense of belonging in rural Manitoba too — Neepawa with its growing Filipino population is one such example.

But getting there isn’t easy and it requires a full understanding of the problem and a concerted effort to solve it.

To truly address the farm labour shortage, farms need to look for ways they can be an employer of choice.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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