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Filling the youth gap in agriculture

Here’s how to inspire and recruit the next generation of ag employees

Becky Parker
photo: Supplied

What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a common question that adults ask young people. Popular answers include pro athlete, doctor or lawyer, or you might just get a shrug of the shoulders and an “I don’t know.”

Unfortunately, careers in agriculture and food rarely make it to the top of these lists. But perhaps this is because youth have a difficult time identifying careers in agriculture beyond “farmer.”

The popular perception of a career in agriculture is that it is in the field or in the barn, working long hours in tough conditions for low pay.

Indeed, there is enough reality in this common perception to make it tough to sell the idea of building a satisfying, rewarding career in agriculture.

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Young farmers in soybean fields before harvest

In fact, negative perception is one of the factors which contributes to the serious shortage of the agriculture labour in Canada.

Identify the issue

If you work in the agri-food sector you have probably heard the numbers from the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council (CAHRC). The current gap between the supply and the demand for agri-food workers is 59,000, and the result of that gap is that $1.5 billion in sales are foregone each year.

And it’s getting worse. CAHRC estimates that within 10 years the Canadian agri-food sector could be unable to find workers for 114,000 jobs.

Perhaps most scary is that these numbers only reflect the situation in primary production. The labour shortage is pervasive across the food system, impacting the productivity and profitability of agribusinesses in this country.

It is not just farm workers we require. The sector needs food scientists, salespeople, meat cutters, robotic engineers… you get the picture.

Focus on Gen Z

So what can be done to tackle the issue? Temporary foreign workers will need to be an ongoing source of labour for the agri-food sector. However, there is another group that we should be focusing our recruitment attention on: Gen Z.

You have probably heard of the Millennials, but maybe not Gen Z. So pay attention. These are the youth who are born between 1993 and 2011. They make up 22 per cent of the Canadian population and will be entering the workforce over the next 20 years.

Many Gen Zers are sitting in high school classrooms right now, ready to make their career decisions. The question is, how do we direct their attention to careers in the agri-food sector?

It is a question I have been asking for the last two years as a 2015 Nuffield Canada Scholar, partly thanks to funding from the Country Guide family of publications.

Search for solutions

The premise of a Nuffield Scholarship is to investigate agriculture around the world in order to identify approaches and strategies that can be applied to industry issues. As a Nuffield scholar, I had the incredible opportunity to travel internationally to research my selected topic: agriculture career education.

My travels took me across Canada, as well as to France, Scotland, England, New Zealand, Australia, Jamaica and the United States.

Not surprisingly, many other countries around the world are also experiencing labour shortages in agriculture. Indeed, some of the countries I travelled to, such as the United Kingdom and Australia, were facing the same perception issues that we have here in Canada. Youth are quick to name “farmer” as their prime example of an agri-food career, and the urban/rural divide continues to place pressure on the image of agriculture by affecting what young people think it means to work in the sector.

Find the “Ah-Ha” moment

At the beginning of my scholarship, I was warned that “ah-ha” moments could arrive unexpectedly, and that they could have a major impact on how I viewed my topic. One of those moments hit while I was in Australia.

After a series of back-to-back meetings in the heart of Sydney’s CBD (Central Business District), I was walking downtown amid a crowd of hundreds of business people. I wondered: how many of them know that dozens of agribusinesses are centred right next to the big investment firms and ad agencies?

If people don’t know these businesses exist, why would they ever think of working for them?

Shortly after, I passed a giant three-storey Apple store. I immediately thought “that is a place where young people want to work.” It’s visible. It’s edgy. It makes you want to see yourself there.

I started to shift my thinking to marketing, considering how companies like Apple and Google build a loyal customer base while also becoming a desirable place to work. It turns out there is a formula for building brand loyalty, and it applies as much to selling ag careers as it does to selling iPhones.

However, for the formula to work, the agri-food sector needs to play a major role, using its three steps (exposure, engagement, and influence) to encourage youth to select a career in agriculture and food.

Consider Nuffield

A Nuffield scholarship helped me help our industry. It could help you too

In the agri-food sector, we often focus on growth. We think about the growth of our crops and livestock, the growth of our profit margins, the growth of our customer base and brand recognition, and more.

However, sometimes we forget to focus on the growth of ourselves.

If you are passionate about your business, committed to the future of Canadian agriculture, and looking for a personal growth challenge, you should consider applying for a Nuffield Scholarship.

Speaking from experience, here are three of the biggest impacts a Nuffield Scholarship will have on you:

  • Apply your passion: Applying to Nuffield is about seeking information on a topic of personal importance and interest. Do you have an issue on your farm that you want to address? Is there a challenge facing your industry? A Nuffield Scholarship is your chance to explore that through international travel. Think about the difference you can make for Canadian agriculture through applied research.
  • Open your mind: Nuffield is about a global experience. There is nothing like talking to farmers and agribusiness people from other countries to highlight the similarities and differences agriculture faces around the world. You will be challenged to look at things from a global perspective and to consider approaches and solutions you may never have considered before. You will grow professionally, and you will grow personally.
  • Build your network: If you talk to anyone who has completed a Nuffield Scholarship, you will hear that it opens doors. You will have the opportunity to become friends with people around the world, many of whom will open their homes to you and help you on your journey. Nuffield is also a key to open the doors to new business contacts who are eager to share their knowledge and learn from your experiences.

If you have questions, reach out to the past and present scholars to hear their experiences.

Don’t miss this opportunity! Nuffield Scholarship applications are due each year on April 30.

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