Meat sector looks at career approach to attract workers

Providing temporary foreign workers with skills will help the agrifood sector expand

Nearly seven percent of Canadians were out of work in February, in-cluding thousands in Alberta who lost their jobs when oil prices collapsed.

However, few of those job seekers will likely consider filling out an application form to work in a meat packing plant, where there are about 1,000 vacancies.

Wayne Marietta, a student at the National Meat Training Centre at Olds College, is willing to work in such a facility. He has worked in retail, taken odd jobs and driven a truck. Now, he wants to settle down.

“I don’t want just a job. I want a career,” he said.

The entire industry needs to adopt that attitude, said Brad McLeod, who heads the program at Olds.

“We need to have a training culture for the entire industry,” he said.

Some of the big players are working with McLeod to offer on-site training for workers that will hopefully give them the skills they need and the desire to work there permanently.

“It is hard to sell because the meat industry is not sexy,” he said.

“We have to treat our employees like they are long-term employees and we have to start adding training,” he said.

“From there we can develop leaders.”

Meat plants have relied heavily on imported workers, but sweeping changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program because of reported abuses in other sectors are drying up that source of labour.

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Ron Davidson of the Canadian Meat Council, which represents federally inspected facilities, said the Temporary Foreign Worker Program was never the right solution when permanent employees were needed.

He said labour is one of the most significant issues affecting the food manufacturing industry.

“Our whole agrifood sector is being constrained by our ability to get workers,” he said.

Canadians do not see these as desirable jobs and are often reluctant to move to new communities. Past experience has shown that laid off employees are rarely willing to move to a new community when a plant closes.

The meat sector claims it has tried to recruit across Canada from among the unemployed, new immigrants, refugees, aboriginals and young people. Many are urban residents and do not want to go to smaller communities. They also don’t find the job offers attractive.

“The cost of this to the whole Canadian agricultural sector and rural economies is significant,” he said.

The industry has met with federal ministers to discuss the problem, but the solution has been elusive.

“We need to continue working with the federal level to get access to workers in our plants in Western Canada, for sure,” said Olivier Lavigne-Lacroix, manager of corporate affairs with Cargill Canada.

“If we look forward five or 10 years, we will start facing similar issues in plants in Eastern Canada.”

Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, said a large multinational company that is considering closing one of its plants may choose a Canadian facility if it is operating below capacity because of the worker shortage.

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The federal government has a hire-Canadians-first policy and has said people would stay if agriculture paid better wages.

However, Davidson said most federal facilities are union shops where people are paid fair wages starting at $17 an hour, with health benefits and pension plans.

Manitoba and Alberta have faced the greatest problems getting and keeping workers in their beef and hog plants, he added.

The new regulations don’t allow companies to fill their workforces with more than 30 percent temporary foreign workers, and that must be reduced to 20 percent within four months.

Davidson said Canada requires an immigration program in which foreign workers should possess specialized knowledge and skills. The meat industry has requested that butchers and meat cutters be eligible immediately for inclusion in Canada’s new Express Entry program, he added.

Immigration minister Jason Kenney made a provision earlier this year to allow temporary foreign workers in Alberta who had already made an application through the provincial nomination program to stay for another year.

Finding good staff is a common problem across the country.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council has launched an in-depth study into the exact jobs and skills associated with modern agriculture, including livestock, horticulture and crops.

Focus groups are being held across the country to identify skills and training requirements for workers and those doing the hiring.

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