Has anything received more talk and less action than Canada’s chronic farm labour shortage?
The nagging disconnect between unemployed Canadians and job openings in agriculture hit me this week when Statistics Canada announced that the country had lost more than 31,200 jobs in July.
The figure was a surprise to everyone. Economists had predicted a 10,000-job increase, not a loss.
And the news made me think about jobs waiting in agriculture, jobs mentioned in labour market research released to very little fanfare back in March, during the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s Growing the AgriWorkforce summit in Winnipeg.
Then, the research, involving more than 1,000 ag sector stakeholders (including 800 primary producers) sounded alarm bells for decision makers and the ag community itself.
First, the council claimed annual farm cash receipt losses to Canadian producers due to job vacancies were a whopping $1.5 billion.
That, it said, is three per cent of the industry’s total value in sales and production.
It also said primary agriculture (versus processing) had the highest job vacancy rate in the sector, at seven per cent.
And it went on to predict the current gap between ag labour demand and the domestic workforce – now at 59,000 jobs – could grow to 114,000 jobs by 2025.
No wonder the council’s executive director, Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, called the situation “critical.”
And she predicted it would get worse. Threats to primary production are also threats to processing and competitiveness, especially if we can’t find people who’ll work in jobs that turn raw commodities into value-added products. The whole thing is a mess that just goes on and on.
MacDonald-Dewhirst called on government and industry to move forward to find solutions. She noted that industry has been encouraging young people and workers from other sectors to get into agriculture as a career. But the council says despite these efforts, gaps exist and there will still be a large void in the future.
Well, the future is now.
In July, jobs were lost at a rate not seen since the ugly months of 2011. The overall unemployment rate rose as a result. Across Canada, the unemployment rate for young people is an embarrassing 13.3 per cent. It’s worse yet in mainstream cities where you’d expect to find jobs — for example, next door to me, in Kitchener-Waterloo. The unemployment rate there for young people is at an agonizing 16.7 per cent.
In Ontario, commodity groups have banded together to try to get stakeholders onside for ag policies and programs that give farmers the latitude they need to produce food. Currently, their main issues are environmental, which are certainly a big priority for the government.
But so is job creation and exports, which have a direct connection to agriculture.
To me, this is a huge opportunity for farming, for a high-profile campaign with measurable milestones, supporting a comprehensive ag job program.
It’s nice to talk about the lazy days of summer, holidays, the pursuit of local food, the Olympics, and all that. But for some commodities, harvest has arrived. And for major field crops, it’s not far down the road. Agriculture has looked after the employment gap to an extent with the temporary foreign worker problem, an admirable supply-and-demand initiative to fill jobs that Canadians don’t — or don’t think — they like to do.
But like the name says, it’s temporary. And the ag employment problem is critical.
Shouldn’t Canada have something long-term to augment the temporary foreign worker program? Something modern, domestic and permanent? Something that seizes on our growing love for and excitement over Canadian food? Something that reflects a drive towards greater self-sufficiency?
Its agricultural labour council thinks so. So do I.