Fruit & Vegetable Magazine

Features Labour
What’s being done about the ag labour shortage in Ontario

Organizations in Ontario are stepping up to solve a long-standing problem in agriculture.


July 7, 2020
By Stephanie Gordon


Topics
Nine virtual career fairs are being held across the province, and this easy online process can help attract people to agriculture in a way they haven't considered before. Photo courtesy of Feeding Your Future project.

Labour shortages in agriculture, unfortunately, are nothing new. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the issue, organizations in Ontario are stepping up to offer solutions.

“There is a big concern about labour, which isn’t entirely unusual, the agricultural sector is always looking at labour as a big issue,” says Cathy Lennon, general manager of the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA).

In the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s (CAHRC) 2019 report How Labour Challenges Will Shape the Future of Agriculture, CAHRC states that labour shortages cost the Canadian agriculture sector $2.9 billion in lost revenues in 2017. The chronic labour shortages have led agricultural employers to rely on foreign workers, who account for 17 per cent of the sector’s workforce.

Advertisment

Agriculture employers face a host of unique hiring challenges such as large seasonal fluctuations in employment; hiring in low density, rural areas; negative perceptions about what agriculture work involves; and a competitive commodity market that limits the ability of employers to raise wages to attract workers.

This year, for producers unable to work with the same amount of seasonal agricultural workers as they do in a normal year, Lennon says it is a significant issue especially as we get closer to harvest.

“We finished asparagus harvest now, or are close to it, and many farmers did not get their full complement of employees. As we go further into the season I know the hand-picked cucumber harvest will start in early July and we’re still talking about, ‘Will the workers arrive that we are expecting, we need them’ and if [they don’t arrive] we could be in a position of plowing under cucumber fields and other crops following that,” Lennon says.

Early on during the COVID-19 crisis, OFA identified that the inability to access labour was not an insurable risk under the provincial crop insurance program.

“Lack of labour was never something that was considered an insurable peril under [the AgriCorp] program and we have been successful at getting that coverage for farmers, so that is some relief.”

Connecting employers and job seekers

In addition to securing the change in the crop insurance fine print, OFA also partnered with industry stakeholders to apply for Canadian Agricultural Partnership funding to help bridge the gap and connect job seekers to the opportunities available across the agriculture value chain.

OFA states that the Feeding Your Future project coordinated a support system to help make it easier for employers to find, train and retain the employees they need, as well as help employ Ontarians with meaningful jobs during COVID-19 and beyond.

“During COVID-19 and beyond” is key for a sector where the labour gap is expected to nearly double over the next 10 years. The CAHRC reported that the agriculture sector expects to see 112,200 workers retire between 2018 and 2029, which is the equivalent of 37 per cent of its workforce. “This is placing added pressure on a sector already challenged to find enough workers,” the report reads.

To keep the agri-food sector resilient, the Feeding Your Future project includes a free job matching concierge service, nine virtual career fairs, a series of 10 webinars, and specialized training opportunities.

While the COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted a wide range of sectors with lost jobs and layoffs, the Ontario agri-food sector continued to employ over 837,000 people as an essential service to produce food for the province.

“We know there are a whole number of sectors across the province that have lost jobs, like tourism and hospitality. We are desperate for labour and they are, hopefully, desperate for jobs, so we are running nine virtual career fairs across the province [with jobs] along the spectrum of agriculture,” Lennon explains.

“We know there are a whole number of sectors across the province that have lost jobs, like tourism and hospitality. We are desperate for labour and they are, hopefully, desperate for jobs, so we are running nine virtual career fairs across the province [with jobs] along the spectrum of agriculture,” Lennon explains.

Feeding Your Future’s first virtual career fair was held on June 19, 2020. OFA shares that the event welcomed more than 100 attendees, visiting more than 20 exhibitors. Approximately 75 different positions were featured at the career fair, including exhibitors such as Scotiabank, Cargill, Dairy Lane Systems Ltd., Buurma Acres and LaSalle Agri.

“I participated in one of the virtual career fairs and it was amazing. We had Maple Leaf, Maple Lodge, Ferrero Rocher and a number of farms, and then a number of people coming say ‘Hey I’m looking for a job,’” Lennon continues.

So far, five virtual career fairs have taken place, with four focusing on local opportunities within specific regions such as London-Middlesex and Norfolk-Haldimand areas.

There will be two virtual career fairs held province-wide on July 8 and August 25 as well as regional career fairs in northern, western and eastern Ontario in August and September.

“We will be looking at how successful these are, and what kind of job matching capability came from these [virtual career fairs] and then reporting on that. Maybe this will even be a tool beyond COVID-19 because you can log on and talk directly with HR representatives from all these organizations,” Lennon says.

The ease, and to be determined success, of these virtual career fairs can help agriculture employers connect with potential employees outside of their typical recruiting methods.

“One of the things that I’ve learned throughout this process is that we’ve relied on farm kids, kids coming out of university ag programs and seasonal ag workers. We’ve kind of focused our efforts on the population and demographics that we know in terms of attracting those people to our industry longer term,” Lennon says.

“One of the things that I’ve learned throughout this process is that we’ve relied on farm kids, kids coming out of university ag programs and seasonal ag workers. We’ve kind of focused our efforts on the population and demographics that we know in terms of attracting those people to our industry longer term,” Lennon says.

“I think what something like this [pandemic] has allowed us to do is say, ‘Hey we’re looking for labourers or truck drivers or quality assurance people’ and it’s quite possible that if we look further than our immediate connections, maybe those people are out there and we can bring them into the agricultural community.

“And ideally, the important thing that we really want to focus on, is keep them here,” Lennon adds.

More tools for solving the labour equation in agriculture

OFA explains that through their partnership with AgCareers.com and CareersInFood.com, the job matching concierge helps agri-food businesses set up an online account, post job openings and manage applications.

“Whether it’s a small-scale farm business operation interested in hiring one person, or a medium to large food processing operation looking to recruit several job seekers with varying skill sets, the concierge can provide much needed support,” OFA’s program announcement read.

Organizations have the opportunity to post their production and support jobs affected by COVID-19 for free using the online code: AgriFoodONT20.

Throughout the summer, 10 webinars have been scheduled targeting both job seekers and employers in the agri-food sector. Topics range from how to land a job in agri-food, how to retain talent, ‘ask an employer’ panel sessions, and health and safety regulations to keep your essential workforce safe.

In addition to AgCareers.com and CareersInFood.com, OFA says that partners such as the Ontario Agri-Business Association, South Central Ontario Region Economic Development Corporation, Middlesex Workforce Development Partnership, the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, commodity partners, workforce and agri-food industry associations are key to the project’s success.

Connect with the project online at FeedingYourFuture or through social media @FeedYourFuture.

 

With files from Ontario Federation of Agriculture.

Listen to Glen Lucas with the B.C. Fruit Growers’ Association provides insight to the impact of temporary foreign workers in the sector in AgAnnex Talks‘ episode on dealing with labour in Canadian agriculture.