Ag sector urged to think outside the box in labour search

“This is our opportunity to seize the moment and attract people from new locations,” said Ryan Riese, national director of agriculture with RBC Royal Bank during a Syngenta North America media summit, held online in late October and early November. | Screencap via syngenta.com

Industry told to start looking beyond traditional areas, including bigger cities and non-agricultural university education

About 68 percent of unemployed Canadians will not move to another province for a job.

That number, which comes from a 2017 Statistics Canada survey, is a problem for industries that need labour, including the agricultural sector.

Agricultural companies may need a different approach to solve the labour mobility problem, says Ryan Riese, national director of agriculture with RBC Royal Bank.

Maybe new employees can work and live in a Toronto suburb, a condo in Vancouver or on a houseboat in Kelowna.

“For agriculture, this is our opportunity to seize the moment and attract people from new locations,” Riese said during a Syngenta North America media summit, held online in late October and early November.

“We have an amazing opportunity as an industry to start talking to a larger audience about the… career opportunities that exist in agriculture. This is a vibrant, high-tech sector.”

Riese was part of a session looking at the future workforce in Canadian agriculture. Joining Riese for a panel discussion was Trevor Heck, Syngenta Canada president, and Mark Vandenbosch of the Ivey Business School at Western University.

Research from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council indicates that 16,500 ag sector jobs were vacant in 2017 because employers could not find workers.

The shortfall is expected to increase in the 2020s, as older workers retire.

Much of the labour shortage is on farms and in agri-food processing, like meat packing plants. In most cases, those jobs cannot be done remotely.

But there is knowledge work that can be done almost anywhere, including ag scientists, advisers, consultants, communicators, IT specialists and innovators.

Heck said ag companies are all chasing the same people — graduates of an ag school or folks who grew up on a farm.

That recruiting strategy needs to evolve, where the industry taps into “non-agricultural talent.”

If the sector offers flexible work times and flexible locations, the pool of talent becomes much wider and deeper, he added.

“One of the things we learned from COVID, is a lot of these roles can be done effectively from many different locations,” Heck said.

About a year ago, Syngenta recruited employees from parts of Canada that have little connection to agriculture.

“We were hiring people from Vancouver … and we’re getting great talents from those markets,” Heck said.

Part of the agriculture’s labour challenge is university.

Agricultural departments at the University of Saskatchewan and University of Guelph mostly attract students who grew up on farms. At university, they study things related directly to ag production — like soil, plant and animal science.

Maybe a different approach is needed, where students learn about agriculture and something else.

“If you look across all our ag universities, there is some but not very much co-operation between the ag school, the business school, the engineering school and computer science,” Vandenbosch said.

Maybe a student could take a business degree and a plant science degree, Vandenbosch said, or food science and engineering.

The ag industry also needs skilled professionals who may not have studied agriculture at university — maybe engineers or business school grads.

But convincing young urbanites to consider a career in agriculture isn’t easy, even if they can stay in their home city.

Many young people still think of agriculture as growing wheat or milking cows. Many of them want a career where they can make a difference, which is why ag companies must explain how they are sustainable.

“When you’re out looking and talking to candidates, you have to have a really good story about your organization purpose and the industry purpose,” Heck said. “They want to work in an industry they feel proud of and an organization they feel is doing good things.”

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