Wanted: ag sector workers

The agri-food industry hopes to improve the perception of agriculture as a good career choice

The number of students attending agriculture schools in Canada is climbing, and a higher percentage of those students now come from urban areas.

That’s great news for an industry that’s desperate for workers, but it’s not enough.

There are more jobs in agri-food than there are Canadians qualified or willing to do those jobs.

In Ontario, a survey of agri-food employers released in September found that there are four jobs for every graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College.

Universities, industry and government are taking steps to deal with the labour shortfall, but more work is required to change public perceptions about agriculture and food, said Rene Van Acker, dean of the college.

Van Acker faced the perception problem last month when he participated in media interviews about the labour shortage within Ontario’s agri-food sector.

One television interviewer identified the U of Guelph as the largest farm college in Canada.

“I was cringing a little bit…. I’m fine with the word ‘farm.’ but I’m not fine with the word ‘farm’ if it means that a potential, bright young student doesn’t consider us…. That concerns me,” Van Acker said. “The vast majority of our students, and I think that’s true of all agriculture and food programs in the country, go on to work outside the farmgate.”

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The Ontario survey found that firms are struggling to recruit workers:

  • Fifty-one percent of employers in the food industry and 67 percent in agriculture said they have difficulties finding recruits.
  • Fifty percent of food enterprises and 57 percent of ag employers said more than half of their positions require post secondary education.
  • Forty-four percent of food employers and 56 percent of ag employers said they expect to increase their number of new hires in the next five years.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council has identified a massive gap between the number of Canadians willing to work in agriculture and the number of available jobs.

The gap, which was 59,200 in 2014, could grow to 113,800 by 2025 as a large number of older workers prepares to retire.

Temporary foreign workers will continue to fill part of the gap, but many vacancies remain.

CAHRC estimated in 2014 that 26,400 jobs in Canadian agriculture went unfilled.

The human resource council has proposed a number of solutions to the shortage, such as improving access to foreign workers, altering training to meet employer needs and increasing awareness of opportunities in agriculture.

The U of Guelph and other Canadian universities with ag programs are working to increase awareness and promote the opportunities, and student numbers suggest the efforts are paying off.

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“We have all seen increases in enrolment, but we all agree that it’s nowhere near enough,” Van Acker said.

The U of Guelph has outreach programs, such as class workshops and on-campus experiences, to recruit a larger number of urban high school students.

“Our enrolment from urban postal codes has been on the increase for well over five years,” Van Acker said, adding city kids will have to fill the job void because that’s where Canadians now live.

“It’s obvious that recruiting from traditional areas (rural Canada) is insufficient, given the demand.”

Increasing enrolment at ag universities is a positive sign, but four jobs in Ontario for every OAG graduate is a stunning statistic and a difficult puzzle to solve.

More money, energy and campaigns should be directed at the labour issue, Van Acker said.

“There’s an awful lot of conversation about social license across the agriculture sector … and there are investments being made, in terms of having a voice around social license,” he said.

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“That is an important issue for growth in the sector, but equally and perhaps an even more important issue for growth in the sector is … the issue of highly competent employees.”