Changing workforce requires rethink by ag companies, producers

WOODSTOCK, Ont. — When people take a job in agriculture, they stay for a whole career, says Lori Litherland, an Ontario-based consultant who specializes in agricultural employment.

“(Once they) are in, they stay,” she said

She told a recent BASF meeting in Saskatoon that the supply of people with a farm background has been falling along with the number of farms, while the demand for people that understand agriculture and food production has grown.

Professor Bob Tyler of the University of Saskatchewan said the opportunities in agriculture have begun to encourage more non-farm raised students to get an agricultural education.

“Growth in farm size has created a lot of new opportunities for skilled people with training in business and agrology,” he said.

“It used to be that the hired men showed up in May and left in November, worked long hours, just like the farmer, and were poorly paid with no benefits. That ended a long time ago and our industry has changed forever.”

Larry Martin, speaking at a Royal Bank event during Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock last week, said farms often fail to provide appropriately for their workforce.

“Both compensating them and incentivizing, most need to consider this a lot more,” he said.

Goleta LaRush of BASF in Mississauga said the jobs her company offers are attracting people with no background in farming or science.

“That wasn’t always the case,” she said.

“Today’s agricultural work doesn’t look like it once did. We offer 17 weeks of top-up (pay over employment insurance paternity/maternity leave.) Times have changed in this business.”

For example, Paul Rea, BASF’s North American leader, said his company wants its staff to understand that they “do meaningful work, not just collecting a paycheque.”

“Companies like ours have changed along with agriculture,” he said.

“Agriculture was a tough old industry not that long ago. I had to leave the farm, like many people of my generation. Today’s youth can often choose to stay; for most of us it was made clear: ‘get out of here, get an education and get a job.’ ”

Rea said his company now regularly checks with its employees to ensure they feel they are able to grow professionally and personally within their roles in the company, which is important in retaining and engaging the workforce.

“Farmers are facing greater challenges to attract and retain workers, and this has being going on for a while, but it is going to be critical for success for many farms going forward,” said Rea.

Tyler agreed, saying part of getting and keeping workers in agriculture is learning as employers how to navigate the current generation’s desires from a job and that the business needs have an evolving set of offerings to meet the challenge.

“They still want lots of money and benefits and a good plan for a pension someday, but more than ever they want a good work-life balance,” he said.

“This wasn’t something we (previously) thought of a great deal.”

They also aren’t as anxious to start at the bottom of the employment ladder and learn their way up. At the same time, he said it is harder to get the current generation to read extensively about their industry and broaden their horizons.

One thing that hasn’t changed a great deal is that an agricultural education doesn’t lock a person into a single career track. Instead, it can lead down many roads on the agricultural map.

Litherland said another change has occurred, although this time for the later-career agricultural professional.

“I recently placed 61- and 63- year-old folks into permanent, full-time employment in agriculture,” she said. “The demand for experience is growing., and the ability to travel for longer periods of time and to relocate, something that people often have later in their careers.”

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