[UPDATED: June 25, 2021] Poor perception of meat, food and beverage production is negatively affecting worker recruitment, says a group of food labour experts.
“It isn’t that hard to find well-educated people for the meat alternatives but it is hard to find people for the more classic, the meat protein industry,” said Michiel Dekkers, a food recruitment consultant with Dutch agency DUPP.
“We noticed that people make active decisions not to work in meat-processing plants,” he said, referring to the Dutch job market.
Dekkers, along with experts from Denmark and Canada spoke during provincial webinar “The Future of Labour in Protein” on June 15.
The average Canadian food and beverage processor has six vacant positions, said Kevin Elder, a project manager with Food Processing Skills Canada. In Manitoba, that’s about 1,500 vacancies.
“Each of those vacant positions… costs $190 net per day to carry,” Elder said. This leads to a $3-billion-per-year loss for the Canadian industry, he said.
The protein sector sees a similar vacancy rate. Meat processing comprises a high proportion of the demand for labour. Elder said a recent study on meat processing in southwestern Manitoba showed the need for labour isn’t met by the local population. Companies have to recruit elsewhere.
Pressure on labour, particularly ‘unskilled’ labour like packing and light processing “is acute and finds its basis in our ability to plan and invest in future general production workers,” said Denise Allen, president and CEO of the Food Processors Association of Canada.
Recruitment is challenging because of “downward pressure on wages and working conditions which sometimes can be described as wet and damp,” Allen added.
This is more severe outside major manufacturing centres like Toronto and Vancouver, she said.
The second most challenging labour pool is more skilled roles like machine setup, operators, batch formulators, meat cutters, line QC, etcetera, Allen said. Truck drivers and logistics personnel are also needed.
In the Netherlands, meat processors have an image problem more than a people problem, said Dekkers. Meat production is seen as bad for animal well-being and has been wracked by scandal.
Consumers are susceptible to messaging that they need to eat less meat. In 2020, meat alternative snack market sales grew 40 per cent, said Dekkers.
Meat processors face slim margins and have no money to spend on better production sites, better wages or animal welfare, said Dekkers.
Danish consumers are also increasingly concerned about climate, said Lars Horsholt Jensen, COO of Food & Bio Cluster Denmark.
“The retailers are pushing through the agenda that meat consumption is bad, plant consumption is good,” he said.
“We need to have a broader discussion on animal protein production and the perception of targeted vilification of the animal protein industry to benefit alternate protein industries and government investment that follows,” Allen said.
Meat processors can acknowledge where they are part of the problem and work to be part of the solution, said Horsholt Jensen.
There’s also the perception that food-processing jobs aren’t good jobs, said Allen.
“It’s about the belief that somehow these are second-class jobs,” she said. “It’s about the belief that there’s no creativity available in these jobs, and a career that is lifelong and involves innovation, product development and feeding Canadians.”
Elder said their research had shown that only one in three people in the general public would choose a job in the food and beverage sector and even fewer would choose a job in meat processing.
“But we also found that when people learn about what the jobs are, their chances of working in the industry go up,” Elder said. “More education is helpful in recruitment.”
*Many aspects of the agriculture industry would appeal to people if they knew about them, said Jacqueline Keena, managing director for Enterprise Machine Intelligence and Learning Initiative.
“(Agriculture) requires a significant amount of subject matter expertise to really know what is happening, and so if we can increase people’s awareness and understanding of this, it will draw people in,” she said.
*Update: The article previously indicated Jacqueline Keena’s title as marketing director.