Worker shortage puts spotlight on creative hiring

It’s no secret that workers – temporary or permanent – are in short supply in agriculture. Despite having posted strong growth in recent years, Canadian agriculture often struggles to match people with positions.

How dire is the worker shortage? The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), supported by the Conference Board of Canada, recently completed an agricultural labour supply and demand forecast model. This report identified that 26,400 jobs went unfilled in Canada’s agriculture sector in 2014, costing the sector $1.5 billion in lost revenues, or 2.7 per cent of product sales. The report forecast that agriculture’s labour gap will explode by 2025, leaving the sector 113,800 workers short.

Why is it so hard to hire good folks? Start with the fact that the agriculture industry can be highly seasonal in its need for workers. Most agriculture jobs are in rural areas, while most Canadians live in the city. A decline in rural populations over recent decades has also depleted what used to be a handy labour pool for farm employers.

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Changing the way we look for agriculture workers

Recruiting for agriculture today requires a different way of thinking. Some Canadian producers will need to start targeting workers who are only interested in working part of the year or partnering with employers who have offsetting seasonal patterns. Overall the great opportunities and good wages to be found in agriculture need to be promoted.

One company taking these kinds of strategies to heart is Kasko Cattle Co. Ltd. in Coaldale, Alta. According to Nicole Stratychuk, Kasko’s human resources manager, employers need to strike a balance between hiring those with experience versus newcomers with a willingness to learn. Some of Kasko’s positions, like pen riders, need experienced candidates. Other positions in the feedlot or processing areas do not. A hard-working person with a good attitude would be welcomed and trained.

“Sometimes, when recruiting, we hear people say they don’t have the applicable skills, but what we’re really looking for is a good work ethic,” Stratychuk says. “Some of the feedlot and processing skills that we need, we can teach.”

Stratychuk explains that Kasko’s biggest hurdle may be a lack of public awareness in agriculture as a career option, or those who count themselves out due to not having any on-farm experience. For this reason, Kasko places a strong emphasis on educating the public on opportunities in agriculture and promotes agriculture as a place where people can find full-time, well-paying positions and learn new skills at the same time.

Stratychuk notes that Kasko stays connected to the local community by attending local job fairs, presenting at local schools or welcoming school kids to their location. She’s found that when you reach out and educate people about agriculture, it opens doors.

While agricultural experience is a plus for any farm job, and a prerequisite for some, Stratychuk believes casting a wider net makes good business sense.

“The kids who have grown up on a farm may not necessarily come back to the farm once their schooling or interests take them elsewhere,” she says. "The biggest thing is not to exclude people who don’t have farm experience. If we only recruit people who have lived on a farm, we will really limit ourselves."

Don’t change the seasonal worker, change the seasonal work

Paul Doef, owner of Doef’s Greenhouses near Lacombe, Alta., had a different challenge when it came to finding workers for his 11-acre greenhouse operation. The highly seasonal nature of the commercial greenhouse business meant he was often re-hiring or re-training new team members after a winter break.

Doef tackled it as a production opportunity rather than a people problem. He changed his business infrastructure to include high-tech lights so the greenhouse could create consistent, year-round production. Doef’s seasonal labour headaches disappeared.

“Now we can use the same crew all year,” he says. “It’s a huge advantage to us to be able to offer our employees year-round employment. There’s no need to shut down production for a break only to later find our previous staff people, or train new staff.”

Other hiring strategies are used by Doef to adjust for staff vacations or busier production periods. For those times, he spreads the word by calling on existing staff for referrals or by posting on local community job boards. When he’s really in a pinch for workers, he turns to other area greenhouses to borrow workers.

“We’re competitors in a sense,” Doef says, “but at the same time, I know what it feels like to look at a crop that’s starting to get a little over-grown, or be behind starting your work week. We call on each other, and the employees are usually happy for the extra money.”

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Sell the lifestyle, not just the job

Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of CAHRC, explains that although Canadian producers are feeling the labour pinch now, the growth of the agriculture industry has resulted in a wide range of opportunities for workers.

“The sky is the limit for this industry,” she says. “It all comes down to having enough workers to ensure businesses can meet their production targets, or expand their operation to meet new business demands as the industry grows.”

In MacDonald-Dewhirst’s view, the industry must focus on communicating why agriculture is such a great place to work. She points to trends that spell renewed interest in agriculture. These include the local food movement and the development of the so-called gig economy, in which many workers cherish short-term work assignments.

While earlier generations tended to love permanent, full-time jobs with a singular career trajectory, more people today want something that’s flexible, seasonal and requires no long-term commitment.

This trend holds for young people entering the workforce, for Canadians already in the workforce and even baby boomers who may want a different experience as they mature or approach their retirement years.

“Research is clear that people are experiencing more change in career history than ever before, and people are looking for something new and different,” MacDonald-Dewhirst notes. “That can work to our advantage in this industry. We need to ensure that people know the agriculture and food industry is open for business, is hiring, and is a really interesting place to work.”

From an AgriSuccess article (Sep 2017) by Kieran Brett