Winter fair shines light on careers in ag

A glut of jobs in food and agriculture in Canada was the impetus behind a symposium focused on getting that message out to high school students at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair this month.

Laurie Sawyer, a quality assurance manager and hazard analysis and critical control point co-ordinator for Golden Valley Farms in Arthur, Ont., said little information was available about such careers when she was a high school student.

“There is a gap there that needs to be filled,” she said. “There are not many resources for educators to direct them to opportunities there. If you have a food science background, the sky’s the limit (research and development and animal welfare jobs).… There’s everything from the government level right down to the farm.”

Sawyer stumbled across her current career path after becoming curious about the ingredients she was working with in the hospitality industry.

She completed programs in food and beverage management and food and pharmaceutical technologies at Durham College of Applied Arts and Technology in Oshawa, Ont., and has, worked for Maple Leaf Foods and PepsiCo CanadaQuaker. She didn’t grow up on the farm but was drawn to agriculture out of a love of the culture and science of food.

Sawyer said high school didn’t show how basic subjects could be applied in processes such as fermenting beer or curing meats.

“You don’t see that in the classroom, you don’t learn about the different applications,” she said.

For Sawyer, college was a gateway to her current work.

“You go to university to get an experience, you go to college to get a job,” she said, praising co-operative programs for giving her hands-on, on-the-job training.

Peter Hohenadel, the Royal’s director of agriculture and food, said there are three jobs for every ag grad coming out of the universities of Guelph and Dalhousie and similar schools.

He said the Royal, food processors and Dalhousie agriculture faculty staged the first-ever Taste the Future symposium to shine a light on careers in agriculture by bringing in corporate human resources staff, school counsellors and young agriculture graduates.

“We are trying to influence those guidance counsellors so when they speak to these kids, they think about food and agriculture as an alternative,” he said.

Rene Van Acker, dean of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, said employers are particularly drawn to those with agriculture and food training combined with farm backgrounds.

“The sector continues to grow, and those students get snapped up quickly,” he said, noting his challenges in finding students willing to delay employment and instead continue with graduate studies.

A study that the college commissioned five years ago found a large gap between supply and demand, as large as three jobs for every ag grad.

Two-thirds of employers contacting the school indicate their preference for students from food and agriculture programs but have to hire from other faculties because sufficient graduates aren’t available.

That study is now being repeated, and he expects little has changed. It’s a similar story for the eight agriculture colleges across the country, he added.

Van Acker said there are many jobs in the field with input companies supplying seed, chemicals and equipment, but there are also less well-known careers such as agricultural banking, business operations, science and technology, quality assurance, process management and technical sales.

“These are jobs not featured in TV shows, but are lucrative, well paid, that are invisible and exist in the food and ag sector,” said Van Acker.

“It’s a positive message, no matter what your interests, inclinations, skills, there’s probably room for you somewhere in the ag industry.”

Van Acker is not surprised that 60 percent of his students are drawn from urban areas, citing the consolidation of farms, shrinking numbers of operations and farmers and depopulation of rural communities.

However, he said agriculture remains a good career choice for young people with farm backgrounds.

“There are opportunities for your children in agriculture, even if there are not opportunities on the farm,” said Van Acker.

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