Industry failing to inform students on careers in agriculture

One of the most common questions asked in conversations with folks who work in the agriculture industry is about a person’s farm background.

It’s easy to understand why this question gets asked. For one thing, it’s a great ice breaker because it lets people find common ground.

It is also a simple way to suss out whether the person knows anything about agriculture, especially if you happen to be at an event in the middle of town.

Given that most Canadians generally have no idea where their food comes from, one can usually assume that if you’ve lived on a farm or worked/studied in the field for any length of time you probably have a pretty good idea of how the sector works. However, too much focus on whether a person has a farm background can also have its disadvantages.

(For the sake of full disclosure, I do not have an agriculture background. None of my family farms. Most everything I know about the sector has been learned while on the job.)

For one thing, Canada’s farm — and rural population — is shrinking, meaning the pool of people born with a farm background is getting smaller.

That means a smaller talent pool for an industry already facing a burgeoning labour crunch expected to balloon past the current estimated shortfall of 59,000 workers.

Filling those positions is a complicated matter that requires a combination of factors to be addressed, including location, wage, work type, education requirements and schedules. Urban Canadians often don’t want on-farm jobs, so there’s no simple solution.

Yet, the staff shortages Canada’s agriculture sector faces goes beyond the farm.

In its 2017-18 plans and priorities report released in March, the Canadian Grain Commission warned nearly 25 percent of its current staff was eligible to retire in the next five years. The commission staffs 404 full-time equivalent positions, of which 24.5 percent are eligible to retire in five years or less.

Potential future staffing issues were also flagged by the Canadian Dairy Commission in its 2016-17 corporate plan.

“Recruiting employees with specialized knowledge in the fields of agricultural economics and the dairy industry remains a challenge due to the small number of potential candidates,” the commission said.

“Employee attraction and retention are therefore important,” adding it has a succession plan in place for its “key positions.”

The shortfall isn’t just in the public sector. Job postings for agricultural economists, communications staff, researchers, government relations persons, accountants and marketing specialist are commonplace across the industry.

Many of those positions could be filled by folks who don’t have any agriculture background.

Some companies and sectors have already started recruiting outside the farm space and hired people with an interest in the sector and are willing to learn.

Those efforts need to go further if the sector wants to tackle the crux of its labour issues: urban Canadians don’t consider agriculture as a field — at all.

The majority of my high school class, as well as those of many of my friends, earned degrees in areas like economics, law, business, science, education, engineering, communications, medicine and political science. I can’t think of a single high school classmate, many of whom graduated at the top of their class, who works in the agriculture sector today. Why? No one ever told us how those hard-earned degrees could be applied within the industry.

Nor did anyone tell us how many opportunities and careers were available in agriculture. This, at a time when youth unemployment and underemployment is a reality.

This knowledge gap is a significant shortfall and one that must be tackled head-on if the industry has any hope of filling its current and future vacancies.

Every time the industry takes a chance on someone without a farm background, that gap closes ever so slightly. When those employees talk about their work and their employer with their urban friends, suddenly agriculture is embedded in the conversation.

Is it the perfect solution? No.

But, that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a shot.

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