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Growing labour solutions at Highline Mushrooms


July 21, 2016
By Theresa Whalen CAHRC Communications.

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July 20, 2016 – From its founding in 1961, Highline Mushrooms has flourished to become the largest mushroom grower in Canada with four Ontario growing facilities. Part of that success is attributed to approximately 70 per cent of its employees being new Canadians who stay an average of eight years, with some remaining with the company for 20 – 30 years.

This labour success is not an accident, nor left to chance; rather, it is carefully orchestrated.

“For many immigrants, Highline is their first or second job in Canada,” explains Susan McBride Friesen, director of human resources of Highline Mushrooms from their head office in Leamington, Ont. “Providing employment to new Canadians helps them to establish Canadian roots, learn new skills – including English as a second language – and become a part of the Highline family.  We find that new comers to Canada often have farming connections in their home land, with a closer relationship with the land.  Providing them an opportunity to grow and learn has produced generations of leaders within our organization.” 

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The Highline Mushrooms recruitment process caught the attention of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) as it strives to alleviate the chronic labour shortage facing Canadian agriculture through its Labour Market Information (LMI) research. CAHRC recently released research indicating that annual farm cash receipt losses to Canadian producers due to job vacancies are $1.5 billion or three per cent of the industry’s total value in sales and production. The current gap between labour demand and the domestic workforce is 59,000 and projections indicate that by 2025, the Canadian agri-workforce could be short workers for 114,000 jobs.

“There is no one answer to the agricultural labour shortage in Canada,” explains Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of CAHRC. “New Canadians have long been an under-represented group within the Canadian workforce. Highline Mushrooms is a great example of innovative labour solutions and their recruitment and training process is a model for success that CARHC is sharing so that others may benefit.”

Highline’s approach to labour identifies several key aspects including recruitment, overcoming transportation barriers, overcoming language barriers, new hire orientation, supervisory and leadership development, effective HR practices and key success factors.

Recruitment is achieved by approaching local immigrant settlement agencies and offering meaningful work at a fair wage. Associates within the immigrant settlement agencies are brought to the farm facilities and perform the work themselves to be better able to communicate and match immigrants’ skills with Highline job requirements. Highline also holds regular job fairs in partnership with the immigrant settlement agencies and all jobs are available – not just harvesting. This may include maintenance and labour, skilled trades, operating farm equipment, supervisory and accounting jobs, among others.

Overcoming transportation barriers is difficult as many employees must travel from urban centres – typically about a 40 minute commute – and there is no public transportation. In 2006, Highline introduced a ‘travel pay policy’ where employees are paid $6.35 per day for travel providing they arrive at work on time. This has worked well and encourages carpooling however is still difficult for new employees who don’t yet know anyone working at the farm.

Language and literacy barriers are overcome by Highline providing second language training on site, after work, two days per week. The company pays all costs associated with the language training and supports employees with time off work as needed to attend classes. Further, Highline translates important communications into the major languages used by the workers, such as health and safety material and the bi-weekly corporate newsletter. Also, photos without text are used when possible for training purposes.

New hire orientation consists of recruits getting two days of instruction held both in class and on the floor, to provide opportunities for questions and learning. This way, when the recruit returns for their first day of paid work they have met with the supervisor and are familiar with the scope of work. The harvesters have a formal 6-8 week training program; otherwise there is an informal buddy system where someone of similar community or background is paired with a new recruit to help him or her learn the finer points of their job.

Supervisory and leadership development within management is achieved through leadership training with an organizational psychologist to cover issues such as conflict resolution and change management along with support through regular meetings with the HR team.

Effective HR practices implemented at Highline have proven to have big returns. Their Values in Action Program encourages employees to uphold Highline Mushrooms’ values of: Excellence, Care, Respect, Effort, Integrity, Openness and Fairness. Employees who demonstrate these values at work and in the community are rewarded with having their names entered into a monthly draw for various prizes.

Key success factors for the employment of immigrants at Highline have been summarized as:

  • Make full use of the services offered by community job partners.
  • Maintain an open dialogue with job partners to identify areas that need improvement and be willing to work together to find solutions.
  • Make your business attractive to new Canadians by providing meaningful work at fair pay.
  • Make efforts to communicate with new Canadians so they feel comfortable in the workplace.
  • Make communications available in the languages of the immigrants.
  • Ensure that good recruitment processes are in place so the employment experience can succeed.
  • Front line supervisors must be patient, flexible and have the communications skills to be able to explain things in more than one way to ensure the new employee understands what to do.

Highline Mushrooms is just one of many case studies being done as part of CAHRC’s LMI research into reducing barriers to agricultural employment for new Canadians. For more information on CAHRC’s LMI project visit www.cahrc-ccrha.ca. The LMI research was funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Sectoral Initiatives Program.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council works with industry leaders, governments and educational stakeholders to research, develop and communicate solutions to the challenges in employment and skills development in primary agriculture. The Council now leads collaborative implementation efforts in support of the national Workforce Action Plan for the agriculture and agri-food sector. For more information visit www.cahrc-ccrha.ca