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Addressing critical workforce needs: Ensuring Canada’s food supply in times of crisis

Until a few weeks ago, most Canadians hadn’t thought much about where their food comes from, who produces it, or if there would be enough for everyone. Panic buying across the country has meant that one week there are no eggs in grocery stores, and the next week there is no flour. Confronted with empty shelves, Canadians are shifting their perspective. “Where does our food come from?” and “Who produces it?” are becoming increasingly important questions.

Worker shortages impact food supply

Agricultural producers are accustomed to dealing with a variety of risks in producing food for our tables, including trade disruptions and inclement weather. However, farmers have been experiencing increasing difficulty finding the workers they need. Over the past fifty years, international farm workers have increasingly done seasonal farm work when no Canadians apply for these jobs. In 2017, 59,500 foreign workers, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala and Caribbean countries, have picked our apples and harvested our tomatoes in farms across the country. Foreign workers now make up 17% of the total agricultural workforce, including farm business owners, in Canada.

As the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak become more severe, farmers are increasingly concerned that they will not have the workforce required to put food on the tables of Canadians in the coming months. Acknowledging the importance of ensuring Canada’s food supply, the Government of Canada has deemed food production essential, exempting international farm workers from travel restrictions so that farms can continue to produce food.

Farmers employing international workers are now able to arrange for workers to come to their farms while adhering to strict public health regulations. However, not every international farm worker will be able to travel to Canada. Since the supply of Canadians available to work on farms is uncertain, farmers worry that there will still be a shortage of workers to plant and harvest crops in 2020.

At the same time, more people work year-round in agriculture than in seasonal jobs. Farmers report that they are increasingly unable to find Canadians to work in these highly skilled jobs and are concerned about the future. RBC’s Farmer 4.0 report indicates that the agriculture industry needs people with digital skills, leadership abilities, business acumen and communications skills to drive innovation.

Role of labour market information in getting food to our tables

Accurate and timely labour market information will be increasingly important for job seekers of all ages to understand where today’s jobs are and the skills needed in this (and other) growing and dynamic industry. Unfortunately, jobs seekers do not know how to find information about the skills and knowledge that agricultural producers require.

Most farm employees work in two occupations defined in the National Occupational Classification (NOC): “Managers in Agriculture” and “General Farm Workers.” However, the work carried out varies widely from one farm to another. A general worker on a grain farm may set up a GPS system and monitor multiple electronic screens while driving large field machinery; another may care for animals in a bio-secure environment. It is difficult for job seekers to understand how their skills match advertised positions when occupational descriptions in the NOC are too generic.

The Canadian Agricultural HR Council’s AgriJobs website provides information for job seekers about the specific skills and knowledge needed on farms. Clearer definitions of agricultural occupations in the NOC should better reflect the variety of skills and knowledge required in modern farming operations.

More detailed labour market information on wages is also needed (one of the most sought after labour market information). The perception of low wages is a major challenge in encouraging Canadians to work in the sector. Many people are not aware that agricultural wages and benefits have experienced above-average growth during the past two decades, becoming more attractive relative to many other sectors. Current information on wages and benefits offered by type of production would fill a gap in the labour market information available to job seekers interested in on-farm careers.

When job seekers review occupational forecasts for jobs in agriculture, government NOC-based reports indicate that the occupational outlook for agriculture is “poor” or “fair.” At the same time, however, a large labour gap exists. CAHRC estimates that 16,400 jobs on farms went unfilled in 2018. Federal and provincial governments base their occupational forecasts on Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey, which doesn’t capture much of the work done by temporary foreign workers on farms each year, leading to inaccurate occupational forecasts. It will become increasingly important to account for the work of temporary foreign workers so that Canadians can understand where farm work is needed.

Careers in agriculture ripe for the taking

With the heightened interest in food security and supply chains, now is the perfect time to promote careers in agriculture to Canadians of all ages. Jobs supporting our food supply are highly skilled and will provide growing opportunities in the future.

The effects of the COVID-19 crisis will be felt in the agricultural sector for months and years to come. To ensure food security, it is critical for government and industry to work together so that enough people have the right skills to work in agriculture. This involves training interested Canadians without agriculture experience — from non-farming, urban backgrounds — while ensuring accessible training for those in rural and remote areas.

It remains to be seen whether the changes brought by the COVID-19 outbreak will continue once the virus abates. What will the new normal be for Canadians? Will there be continued interest in the security of our food supply and the people producing food for Canadians? Perhaps at least we’ll stop taking our eggs and flour for granted.

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Debra Hauer is the Manager of AgriLMI, the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s labour market information program. 

hauer@cahrc-ccrha.ca

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