Canadian agriculture’s already acute labour shortage will worsen over the next decade, as high numbers of employees retire and the domestic labour pool continues to dry up.
The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council released labour market information (LMI) research last week, showing a gap of 59,000 employees between primary agriculture’s need for workers and those available to fill jobs on farms. Agriculture’s labour needs far outpace any other sector in the country, with an industry job vacancy rate of seven per cent.
“One in 12 worker positions in this sector is vacant at any point in time,” said Michael Burt, director of industrial economic trends with the Conference Board of Canada, who presented the LMI findings at the Growing the AgriWorkforce summit in Winnipeg last week.
“No other sector really faces anything like that. The average in all sectors in Canada is one in 36,” he said.
The labour gap is the difference beween how many people are needed to work and how many Canadian residents are making themselves available for those jobs. The research, which focused exclusively on primary producers, looked at the need for workers in two occupations — general farm labourer and manager.
Agriculture is hard hit by these labour shortages due to the three main contributing factors, Burt said. The work is seasonal, the wages paid are low relative to other sectors and it’s difficult to lure urban workers to rural Canada, he said.
Wages paid in agriculture are rising over time, but still remain below average compared to all other sectors.
“On average farmers pay about 30 per cent less than the average for all sectors across the country,” Burt said.
Meanwhile, the rural population out of which farmers have traditionally hired, isn’t growing. All of Canada’s population growth over the past quarter-century has all been in urban centres, said Burt.
“In the last 25 years rural Canada has not changed,” he said. “It’s essentially the same today as it was in 1990.”
That situation also shows no signs of a turnaround, meaning farmers having a tough time hiring will have to be even more creative in their hiring practices by 2025, when the labour gap is expected to double to 114,000 workers.
“The situation is critical now and will only get worse unless it is effectively addressed,” said Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, CAHRC executive director, in a news release.
When farmers who participated in the research that formed the basis of the report were asked about the impact this was having on their farms, they said it means losing money and opportunities. Job vacancies result in annual farm cash receipt losses of $1.5 billion, or three per cent of the industry’s total value in sales and production, the report concluded.
Ontario and the Prairies are being hardest hit, sharing as much as 85 per cent of those lost sales.
“Basically, one in five operators told us that labour shortages are reducing their interest or ability to invest in growth,” said Burt.
In the beef cattle sector alone, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association noted in a separate release, unfilled vacancies cost their industry $141 million in farm gate cash receipts in 2014. The beef sector also expects to see up to a third of its current producers retire in the next decade.
The LMI research focused on occupational categories of general farm workers and managers, with half the identified labour gap being labour and about 30 per cent managerial, Burt said, noting the demographics of the existing workforce are playing a big role.
“What’s driving that? Retirement is the biggest factor by far,” he said.
And while the LMI study looked only at primary production, a shrinking labour pool will negatively affect export potential of Canada’s entire agri-food industry, other conference speakers said.
Ron Davidson, director with the Canadian Meat Council, warned Canada’s global competitiveness is at stake if its labour issues can’t be resolved. Packers are working hard to hire domestically, but with hundreds of vacancies since restrictions to the temporary foreign worker program took effect in 2014, plants are struggling to do value-added production. That has the effect of making potential investors look elsewhere and at the same time fewer meat jobs mean fewer jobs in the economy elsewhere.
“Every job on a production line in a meat plant is creating jobs in other parts of the country that Canadians do want… in sales, marketing, human resources,” he said.
The Liberal government has recently said it will ease restrictions on the TFW program in Atlantic Canada for seafood processors. But the government is not convinced other sectors need similar measures, and wants processors to develop longer-term plans to hire Syrian refugees and permanent Canadian residents, according to a Reuters’ report.
The CAHRC research was based on surveys, interviews and focus groups with 1,034 representatives of Canadian farm organizations, employees and employers, including 813 farmers.
The LMI research did not put forward solutions or recommendations, said CAHRC project manager Debra Hauer. That’s the job ahead, she said.
“What we’re starting to do is have a conversation at this conference, and also in the coming weeks and months, because we want to hear from as many people as possible,” she said.