The farm labour shortage is expected to hit Manitoba harder than any other province because of its diversity of agricultural products.
That’s according to Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council, who spoke last week at the Keystone Agricultural Producers annual meeting in Winnipeg.
“Because of the product mix that you have, the impact of a vacancy in any position in agriculture is higher,” MacDonald-Dewhirst told KAP delegates. “You have more sales per working employee, more so than any other region of Canada.”
By the numbers
At first glance, Manitoba’s total number of unfilled agricultural jobs — 1,447 in 2017 — doesn’t seem that alarming. But it represents six per cent of agriculture’s total labour demand. And that’s expected to grow to 5,330 total positions by 2029, or 20 per cent of the total potential agriculture workforce in Manitoba.
“In 10 years, one in five jobs will be vacant,” she said. “That’s a very troubling statistic.”
She added the issue won’t just be front-line farm labour. It will also be felt in the positions further up the workforce food chain in skilled and management positions.
“In 10 years Manitoba is going to need 1,800 more farm workers and 900 more managers or owners of agricultural businesses,” she said.
There are significant challenges to be overcome in finding, recruiting and retaining farm labour in Manitoba.
Rural locations mean a limited potential pool of employees and a hard sell trying to convince urbanites to move to the jobs.
The work is typically on the more physically demanding end of the spectrum, which won’t be attractive to many.
It’s also work that requires skills and knowledge that aren’t readily attainable for those without a farm background.
And even if you do find new employees, it will be tough to stay ahead of a wave of retirements that are expected to remove close to one-third of the existing workforce from the sector in the next 10 years.
“These vacancies, and the costs of these vacancies, are growing exponentially,” MacDonald-Dewhirst said.
One of the greatest challenges for the Canadian agriculture sector is going to be attracting the candidates with the latest high-tech skills, said Ryan Riese, Royal Bank of Canada’s national director of agriculture.
The bank recently issued a report called Farmer 4.0: How the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture. Riese told the KAP AGM the world is undergoing a “fourth agricultural revolution” on par with the initial adoption of farming and specialization, the emergence of advanced machinery and the use of technology such as software, crop inputs and crop genetics.
“We’ve gone through three, and each has fundamentally changed the agriculture sector,” Riese said. “The fourth revolution will be no less powerful, and will be about data and high tech.”
That will mean a growing demand for people who can operate, maintain and repair these machines of the future. This means rather than competing with the oilpatch for labourers and equipment operators, competing instead with technology firms for technicians, coders and other specialists.
“A tech-heavy farm sector will still have to compete with other sectors for the talent, but think of the opportunities,” Riese said.
Those opportunities are mainly coming from growing demand in countries Canada sells agricultural products to, but if productivity doesn’t grow at home, potential sales will be left on the table, Riese said.
He noted that world population is expected to rise to nine billion people or more over the next few decades and just a few million of those people will be in Canada. That means Canada will continue to have considerable capacity to export food, much of it to non-traditional destinations. For example, India and Nigeria are expected to lead population growth in the coming decades.
“Neither of these countries is currently in Canada’s top 10 destinations,” he said.
But just how much of this growing demand and market share Canada will capture is up in the air, Riese said. Maintaining the status quo would mean 1.8 per cent annual growth in agriculture exports for a total fo $40 billion in annual agriculture GDP by 2030. But making the right investments in technology — and the people to make it work — would see far faster growth.
“Three per cent annual growth and $51 billion in annual agriculture GDP by 2030 is realistic,” he said.
The question is how to attract and retain those employees.
MacDonald-Dewhirst said that might mean developing skills in existing employees so that they can advance their careers within a farming operation.
However, that also means giving the employees the right support to develop, learn and grow rather than simply pushing them off the deep end.
“Often we take the best worker and make them a supervisor,” she said. “But that doesn’t give them supervisory skills.”
She recommended farmers acquaint themselves with the support tools available throughout the industry, such as an ‘AgriHr tool kit’ developed by CAHRC and offered in partnership with KAP to members free of charge.
Another issue is the need to acquaint non-farmers with the sector and make it an attractive employment destination, Riese said.
“We can want them — but we need to make them want it too,” he said.
During the question period following the presentations, Manitoba Agriculture and Resource Development industry development specialist Stephanie Cruickshanks said there may be opportunity for an earlier and more concentrated effort to bring young people into the sector.
Typically most of the effort to entice young people happens at the secondary and post-secondary level, but she said that seems to be too late, based on what she’s observed in her work on education and training.
“By the time they’re in Grades 9 and 10, they’re already choosing career pathways,” Cruickshanks said.
She also noted that in the U.S., food and agriculture is a “stream” option in the technical skills public education system, on par with trades programs here in Manitoba such as carpentry and culinary arts.
MacDonald-Dewhirst said the two biggest challenges for Manitoba’s agriculture sector will be increasing the pool of potential employees and ensuring those employees are equipped with the right skills.
One farmer speaking from the floor during the Q-and-A session noted he’s tried many strategies on his farm. But as fast as he can train employees, they depart for greener pastures. He cited the case of one former employee who learned to drive a large truck and obtained his Class 1 licence while on the farm.
“We educated them on our farm, and guess what, he’s a truck driver now,” he said.
He went on to note that it was going to be an ongoing challenge to balance the business needs and limitations of the farm and the reality of attracting employees.
“We’re looking for this magic bullet to keep them there and give them a fair wage,” the farmer said.
MacDonald-Dewhirst responded that it was unlikely there would be a magic bullet, but rather an experimental process where solutions were forged one employee at a time. She agreed the situation is a frustrating one, and noted it’s a similar challenge for farmers anywhere in Canada right now.
“Your shortage is real,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst. “It’s growing and is predicted to grow significantly over a short period of time.”