The availability of labour is a critical factor in determining the long-term growth and profitability of Canadian agriculture. The ongoing viability of many farm businesses will be determined by labour. Farms, rural communities, value added processing, and key support sectors like transportation, are all struggling to find and keep staff. This is not a new story, but the problem is growing and must become a primary policy focus for industry and governments alike.
The root causes of the agricultural labour shortage are many. At the beginning is a shrinking rural population and a reduction in the number of farm family members wanting to carry on in the business. Combine this with difficulties experienced by all parts of the value chain in convincing urban Canadians to take on jobs that are often located in rural Canada and which are often, erroneously, viewed as unskilled. Accessing foreign workers in a timely manner is complicated, challenging, and often out of the reach of many independent agricultural operations.
How critical is the situation? Work by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) shows that over 40 percent of farm operations indicated they did not have sufficient staff in 2020. That number is even higher for hog farmers, with over 50 percent of pork producers not being able to fill all the positions they need. CAHRC reports indicate that in 2017 labour shortages cost agriculture 2.9 billion dollars in lost revenues. Across the country the demand for agriculture employment exceeds what the domestic workforce can fill. By 2029 it is projected that the industry will be short 123,000 people.
The availability of skilled labour extends beyond the farm gate to include specialists, like large-animal veterinarians and the technical support they need to run their practices. Challenges in recognizing foreign credentials are needlessly limiting our ability to support this critical labour pool.
What needs to be done to address the labour crunch? Most importantly, all of agriculture needs to face this problem together. Fractions between sectors or within value chains will result in overall policy failure. Resolution will not be found by a single industry segment or company. Agriculture needs to deliver a unified message to federal, provincial, and municipal governments on the need for practical solutions.
We also need to get beyond the perception that agriculture employment means just hewing wood and drawing water. Today’s agriculture industry is seeking people to fill careers, not just jobs. We need to work together to better inform those entering our universities and colleges about the skilled and diverse opportunities agriculture has to offer. Agriculture today is on the cutting edge of genetics, nutritional sciences, health of animals, environmental sciences, international marketing, and more.
The private sector needs to work with government and our education institutions to build the technical training programs that are needed to fill the growing labour gap. This programming needs to be made available to both Canadians as well as potential immigrants. Opening skills training to future Canadians will mean changing our immigration policies to reflect the fact that modern agriculture is seeking skilled labour and not unskilled workers.
Increased engagement by Canadians must be part of the solution to agriculture’s growing labour shortage. We should begin by exploring ways to remove barriers to participation in the sector by those who are currently underrepresented in our industry. For example, we should be exploring opportunities to forge partnerships with organizations that represent women, youth, Indigenous communities, and others who may not view agriculture as a viable career choice. We must become more creative in our business practices in areas like flexible work hours and accessible childcare.
Agriculture’s labour gap means the industry needs to look beyond our borders for staff, yet rules and regulations impede the recruitment of foreign workers. Regulatory red tape means it can take six to eight months or more to navigate the process required to bring in a new worker from abroad. This creates problems when a vacancy is opened by a two-week notice. Can we be more innovative in meeting the needs of both immigrants as well as employers? For example, could industry associations like Manitoba Pork speed up the process by facilitating a pool of foreign skilled labour that would be accessed by the industry as needed?
There are signs that the seriousness of the crisis has been recognized. At their recent meeting, federal, provincial, and territorial agriculture ministers set labour attraction and retention, training, and automation as priority areas for the next agriculture policy framework. We are also seeing agriculture representatives reach across sectors to help resolve the issue in a cooperative way. For example, in Manitoba, commodity organizations have come together under the umbrella of the Keystone Agricultural Producers to form the Labour Task Group.
Nationally we see organizations like CAHRC attempting to develop common industry messages.
There is still more to do on this front. Sectors are still largely approaching the problem from an individual commodity point of view. We must develop collaborative and unified action if we are going to resolve one of the greatest barriers to modern agricultural growth and development.