Farmers searching for workers — and the reasons why they find them

There’s a lot to be said for a career in agriculture.

You can make $15 to $20 per hour for driving a seeder, sprayer or combine; don’t have to wear a polyester uniform or be stuck in the office; and can live minutes away from some of the best fishing, hunting and recreational spots in the province.

So why aren’t more young people willing to hire on as farm help?

Dave Gerega, who owns a 7,000-acre grain operation north of Roblin, believes the industry isn’t doing a good enough sales pitch.

He’s met three young people in the past year who have all told him that agriculture was conspicuous in its absence from high school recruiting fairs.

“Everybody else was there from all industries, services, you name it,” said Gerega, who shared his views at the Dauphin stop of a series of workshops on human resource management.

“At three different high schools there was not one booth that referred them to agriculture or ag-related industries.”

But the jobs are there.

It’s estimated farms will need 50,000 workers, plus another 38,000 seasonal ones, this year, said Portia McDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, one of the workshop’s co-sponsors.

And demand will grow as aging workers drop out of the labour pool, she said.

“Other industries are competing, and we need an increasing number of workers in Canada,” said McDonald-Dewhirst, whose organization helps train farmers on how to do a better job of recruiting and retaining workers.

“Everyone is competing with the oilfields. Even in the East, workers are looking to move to Alberta.”

The workshops provide farmers with HR management tools for identifying skills they need and how to attract suitable candidates. That’s what attracted Marvin Kovachik, who farms 3,000 acres east of Swan River.

“Finding younger people is a big concern because the workforce is getting up in age,” said Kovachik, adding that most of his helpers are aged 60 to 70 and are mainly retirees from farming or other trades.

“You don’t know if you’re going to have those people working for you the rest of the season or next year.”

Soaring wages in the oil sector and potash mining have boosted expectations, especially among those who are willing to work hard and endure harsh conditions, he added.

“I can’t offer anyone $15 an hour to come work for me on the farm. They’ll laugh,” said Kovachik.

Farmers need to come up with creative ways to lure workers and keep them, he added.

“Are there other benefits that you can offer to keep them happy?” he said.

Instead of bulldozing the farmhouses on newly acquired properties or selling them off as acreages, they could be offered to recruits as subsidized housing, he said.

For many large-scale farmers, especially in the hog industry, foreign workers from Ukraine or the Philippines are the only option, said Gegera.

But they’re prone to job hopping, too.

“They know the system. They get a job, but then they want to go to the city,” he said. “But then there are some workers who are quite loyal and bring family over. Their work ethic is phenomenal.”

Gerega used to offer company vehicles, but after some bad experiences, he has opted to simply pay the highest hourly wage he can afford.

He’s also using technology to reduce the number of workers on his farm. Auto-steer and GPS allow for longer shifts, and upgrading from three combines to two larger units has cut his labour needs.

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