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Agriculture labour crunch worsening

Over the last decade the number of unfilled jobs has nearly doubled

The agri-food industry has suffered a steadily worsening labour shortage during the last decade.

Without remedial action, it will be far worse 10 years from now, says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

From a shortage of 30,000 workers 10 years ago to a current shortfall of 59,000, there are “clear expectations that it will double again in 10 years to 114,000 workers,” she told the Commons agriculture committee.

“On-farm job vacancies are exceptionally high at seven per cent vacancy rate. The national average for other industries is only 1.8 per cent so this is a clear exception and a clear problem. It’s costing the farm industry $1.5 billion in lost sales revenue each year. That’s $1.5 billion just in the primary agriculture side alone.”

Business owners try hard to recruit workers, she added. “The work typically happens in rural Canada, a lot of it is seasonal, and many Canadians are just that much more removed from our farming backgrounds and so don’t even think about working in this industry.”

Society and governments need to be concerned because not only does the agri-food industry supply “the food we eat, it’s also a huge driver of Canada’s economy, accounting for close to seven per cent of Canada’s GDP,” she noted.

The worker shortage threatens the sustainability and growth for our food industry and needs to be addressed in Growing Forward 3 due to come into effect in 2018. “However, at this point in time, there’s no overt mention of the workforce issues in the next policy framework.

“This is true despite the fact that farmers and producers have been clear and indicated that it’s their No. 1 risk to business success moving forward,” she explained. “What is required in the new policy framework is that we specifically address the workforce shortage and support Canada’s food systems competitiveness and growth.

Canada’s National Labour Task Force has developed a Workforce Action Plan that could become a component of GF3, she said.

“It should involve building a national career awareness initiative, a campaign to clarify extensive and exciting work opportunities the industry has to offer,” she said. “Building public trust is now recognized as an important activity for the industry, and when we clarify how food is produced, we have an opportunity to also clarify who’s involved, and what a great industry this is to work in.”

The action plan should also strive to bring more women into the industry, she urged. “We need to do better, to encourage more Canadians, young and old, those from rural and urban backgrounds, men and women and new Canadians to consider working in this sector and ensure that there are no barriers to entry or advancement for anyone in the industry.”

Affordable training is crucial “to ensure workers in the industry get access to the latest and most effective production techniques, the latest and best practice around human resource and management techniques, no matter how busy or how remote their location is,” she continued.

The action plan “includes clear short-, medium- and long-term solutions to ensure the industry can get ahead of this challenge and address it in a meaningful way to advantage the industry to grow and thrive into the future,” she said.

Manitoba farmer Doug Chorney, vice-chair of CAHRC, said the agri-food industry wants “government policies to be responsive to their needs as employers to fill positions and run their farms and processing operations. It’s the business risk issue and is severely affecting our capacity and value-added agriculture and agri-food processing.”

In addition to attracting more women, governments need to “raise awareness and to disseminate agricultural career opportunities to media influencers, educators, and to the public increasing industry’s access to labour with underrepresented groups, youth and the unemployed.”

MacDonald-Dewhirst said labour shortages are “in every commodity, especially those that are labour intensive, so the horticulture industry, for sure. They’re being felt in significant factors in the low-skilled arenas, but also in the high-skilled arenas. We’re looking at general farm workers, businesses are reporting extensive shortages. They’re also reporting extensive shortages for technicians, and for supervisors and managements of operations.”

It’s a problem across Canada and “at all levels of the industry, both in primary production and absolutely in the processing side as well,” she said. “The 13 value-chain roundtables of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, all 13 have signed on as supporters of the Workforce Action Plan, because this is such an issue for all 13 value-chain roundtables at various levels within the value chain.”

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