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Farm human resources crunch to worsen

Grain, beef and horticulture production will be the hardest hit

"Labour shortages in Canadian agriculture can only be addressed by taking decisive action.” – Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, CAHRC executive director

There are no signs that Canadian agriculture’s labour crunch will be easing any time soon.

In fact a recent labour market forecast from the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council (CAHRC) suggests the situation is set to worsen sharply over the next 10 years. That will limit future growth and delay expansion plans, the group says.

In 2017, 16,500 agriculture jobs went unfilled costing the sector $2.9 billion in lost revenues, or 4.7 per cent of product sales, the CAHRC said. Unable to attract Canadians to fill the jobs, farmers have increasingly tried to recruit foreign labour, which now accounts for 17 per cent of the sector’s workforce.

While that option has eased the problem, it’s hampered by federal regulations, which fail to appreciate the problem of worker shortages or its implications for the national economy. It’s also “only a partial solution and one that could easily disappear due to policy changes or global events,” the report said.

“By 2029, the agriculture sector will need significantly more workers to reach production targets,” the report reads. “At the same time, the size of the domestic agricultural workforce will shrink, placing added pressure on a sector already challenged to find enough workers.”

The forecast also found nearly 90 per cent of producers with unfilled jobs identified excessive stress and hours as a result of not being able to find the workers they required. While new technology and an increase in foreign workers has eased the situation for some farms, job vacancy rates in agriculture are among the highest of any sector in Canada at 5.4 per cent compared to the national average of just under 2.9 per cent although the situation is better than the 2014 rate of seven per cent.

“Labour shortages in Canadian agriculture can only be addressed by taking decisive action,” said CAHRC executive director Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst. “By working together, we can find meaningful, creative solutions to increase the supply of labour and improve the skills of the sector’s workforce for the continued success and growth of agriculture across Canada.”

CAHRC offers Agri Skills, online and in-person training programs, and the Agri HR Toolkit, an online resource guide. It offers customized labour issues briefings for agricultural organizations.

The labour shortage is expected to reach 123,000 people by 2029, which is equivalent to 32 per cent of the projected labour demand for that year, the forecast said.

Government ministries, educational institutions and farm organizations need to co-operate on a plan to address the worker shortages, CAHRC said. That would include improved access to foreign workers to supplement the dwindling domestic workforce and enable employers to meet the labour needs of highly seasonal operations.

More domestic workers could be attracted to the sector through better information on the types of available jobs and schools and colleges should be training students for future agriculture jobs. The existing workforce needs to help gain knowledge and new skills and farm operators should have access to human resources management training.

While fruit and vegetable growers already struggle with worker shortages, grain, oilseed and beef “producers will experience the largest increases in their labour gaps, and account for much of the increase in the labour gap for the sector as a whole,” the forecast said.

The domestic supply of agricultural workers is expected to contract during the next decade with a projected 39,600 fewer Canadians available to work in the sector, the report said.

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