Feedlot operators turn to foreign workers

Employers in the agriculture sector are having a tough time finding and retaining workers in Western Canada’s tight labour market, according to an industry panel at the Western Canada Feedlot Management School in Saskatoon.

Unemployment rates in Western Canada are low, competition for capable workers is high and employers are having difficulty attracting workers to jobs that often involve long hours and hard manual labour in rural or remote areas.

As a result, more employers are hiring foreign workers and semi-retired employees in the age 65 and over age category.

“If you find a Canadian that wants to work in a feedlot, send him my way,” said Brent Chaffee, a feedlot operator from Strathmore, Alta.

Craig Ference agreed that finding Canadians for feedlot work is difficult.

“If we could hire a Canadian, we would,” said Ference, who operates a feedlot at Kirriemuir, Alta., and depends heavily on foreign workers.

Participants at the July 24-26 feedlot school heard that the feedlot industry is having a particularly difficult time meeting its labour requirements.

At his feedlot, Ference currently has employees from Ireland, Australia and Ukraine.

To address ongoing labour challenges in the industry, he started a labour recruitment and consulting company that matches Canadian farm employers with overseas workers who are seeking job experience in a foreign country.

His company, Positive-Perfection, has labour recruiters in Australia and Sweden. Ference said recruiting and hiring foreign workers can be a rewarding experience, but it’s not without challenges.

Depending on where the employees are from and which government programs they are recruited through, paperwork can be onerous.

Linguistic barriers, cultural issues and harsh Canadian winters can also affect productivity, workplace morale and employee retention.

Doug Elliott, a demographics expert with Sask Trends Monitor in Regina, said competition for workers is increasing, particularly in the Prairies.

Between 2006 and 2011, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba had higher employment growth rates than all other Canadian provinces.

Those provinces also have highest overall employment rates, which are currently sitting at around 5.4 percent. A workforce with an unemployment rate of four or five percent is often considered fully employed, Elliott said.

The number of paid employees in agriculture has been declining since the early 1990s.

Over the past two decades, the number of paid workers in prairie agriculture has fallen to about 27,000 in 2011 from 54,000 in 1991, said Elliott.

Agriculture now represents less than one percent of employment on the Prairies and offers some of the lowest average hourly wage rates.

In a comparative survey of average wages offered by 16 different industries on the Prairies, Statistics Canada found that agriculture ranked 15th or second lowest, with an average hourly wage rate of $16.96 per hour.

The forestry, mining and oil and gas industries offered the best average wages at $34.39 per hour, followed by utilities at $33.48 and professional, scientific and technical services at $30.93.

The only sector that offered wages lower than agriculture was the accommodation and food services industry at $13.32.

Ference acknowledged that recruiting and retaining young employees to jobs that involve strenuous manual labour is challenging.

Agricultural wages have risen significantly over the past few years, largely in response to the highly competitive labour market.

In Manitoba, average agricultural wages increased to about $16 an hour last year from around $12 an hour in 2006, an increase of almost 33 percent over the past five years.

Over the same time frame, the average wage earner in Saskatchewan’s agriculture sector saw his pay jump to $17.25 from slightly less than $13 an hour.

Still, the lure of bigger wages elsewhere continues to challenge.

Both Ference and Brenda Robson, an employment consultant with the Robcan Group in Edmonton, said farm employers must find new ways to entice and retain workers.

Enhancing job satisfaction and offering monetary and non-monetary incentives can be effective tools in compensating for low wages.

At Ference’s feedlot, foreign employees are encouraged to host cultural activities to build employee relations and boost workplace morale.

Ference also helped one employee acquire a half-ownership share in a piece of heavy equipment that is used to perform custom work for other farmers and feedlot owners in the Kirriemuir area.

The investment provided extra incentive for the employee to stay in Canada.

“Ownership is big to them,” Ference said.

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