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Let’s get to work on a Canadian agriculture and agri-food workforce action plan

By Mark Wales      

The Labour Task Force is ready to tackle the issues by rolling up its sleeves and getting to work with the new federal government on the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan’s recommendations. 

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Hardworking farmer grow the food in your grocery store. With sustainable technological advancements, the agriculture and agri-food industry is feeding Canadian consumers and the world. 

Canadians can be proud of our Canadian agriculture and agri-food industry which contributes $100-billion and close to seven per cent GDP to Canada’s economy, employing 2.3 million Canadians who work hard to produce more food safely and securely than ever before. 

A sustainable agri-workforce is vitally important to keep Canada a world leader in food production. Unfortunately, however, the agriculture and agri-food industry is facing critical and pervasive labour shortages that are hindering competitiveness and export opportunities. This is putting Canada’s position as the fifth largest exporter of agri-food products in jeopardy. For the Canadian consumer, the agriculture and agri-food worker shortage means fewer Canadian products available in grocery stores at higher prices.

According to a recent Farm Credit Canada report by Ray Bollman, senior research adviser to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) and former chief of the Rural Research Group at Statistics Canada: “Demographic pressures are building within Canada’s labour market and agriculture must address labour shortages to remain competitive and encourage future growth in the sector.  Analyzing wages paid to farm employees reveals that:  The average wage of farm labour has held its own relative to wages paid in all sectors and the median wage of farm labour has gained relative to wages paid in all sectors.”

Wages are keeping pace, but agriculture and agri-food have unique challenges in finding workers when operations are typically rurally based, jobs can be physically demanding and the work can be seasonal.

Hiring Canadians is the first priority and there are many high quality careers with competitive wages and benefits.  But in spite of constant recruitment efforts, many jobs are vacant.  In August, Statistics Canada recognized farm workers as having one of the highest number of job vacancies and the agriculture sector as having the highest share of job vacancies after three months of constant recruiting.  For the industry, labour concerns are now the number one risk to business success and sustainability.

This is why over the last three years a Labour Task Force (LTF) comprised of industry representatives from the agriculture and agri-food value chain including the seafood sector has produced the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan (WAP) to address the critical labour shortage.  This strategy, led by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) and supported by over 65 agriculture associations, makes two key overarching recommendations: increase the supply of labour and improve the knowledge and skills of workers.

The Workforce Action Plan involves an approach to better connect Canadian workers with the industry through a national jobs resource centre, a national career promotion initiative, increased training to improve the knowledge and skills of agriculture and agri-food workers, establishing more transparent wage rate methodology, and many other concrete and achievable action items.

When Canadians aren’t available for agriculture and agri-food jobs, employers need to access international workers to keep the industry viable.  The creation of a new and dedicated Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Program is a critical recommendation of the WAP that makes sense. International agriculture and agri-food workers allow operations to remain open, efficient and competitive. They also create and secure jobs for Canadians.  The industry reports the following examples: every seasonal ag worker creates two additional Canadian agri-food jobs; every beef sector worker creates 4.2 additional Canadian jobs; and every de-boner butcher creates six additional Canadian trimmer jobs in meat processing plants.

The recommended new Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Program would address the seasonal issues facing agricultural and agri-food operations and provide an integrated pathway to permanency for successful workers. Agriculture and agri-food workers are in high demand and strong candidates for economic immigration in rural communities in need of re-population.  However, since general farm workers are classified as “lower skilled” no such pathway currently exists.  Although Provincial Nominee Programs (PNP) offer some hope, Ontario does not allow agriculture or agri-food workers to immigrate and Alberta’s PNP program is currently shut down and under review. 

More research is also needed: Labour Market Intelligence to clarify the shortages and worker requirements; and integration, support, and job requirements for refugees and new Canadians.

There is a lot of work to do.  With the support of the agriculture and agri-food industry, the Labour Task Force is ready, willing and able to tackle the issues by rolling up its sleeves and getting to work with the new federal government on the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan’s recommendations. 

Mark Wales is the agriculture co-chair of the Labour Task Force and the Canadian Agricultural HR Council Chair, which leads the Workforce Action Plan implementation.  Mark Wales is an Ontario farmer.  Mark Chambers is the LTF agri-food co-chair and the farm manager for Sunterra, a family-owned, full value chain pork agricultural business.


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