We keep hearing the numbers. The farm employment crisis is real, and it is getting worse with over 100,000 farm workers expected to retire in the 2020s, and a dwindling number of candidates from traditional sources to replace them.
So, why not go to non-traditional sources?
Or maybe there are better ways to let potential employees know you need them, i.e. ways they’ll actually see.
It turns out there might be more room for optimism than any of us thought.
Engaging rural youth
Contrary to popular belief, rural Canada is not dying, although it is true that the rural population is growing more slowly than the urban population. It is also more variable, with some stagnant regions while others, often along highway corridors, grow rapidly.
Yet most rural communities do struggle with retaining their young people, and they struggle to create opportunities for them to stick around.
What’s becoming apparent, however, is that it’s the youth who could provide the solutions to the digital revolution that’s coming to agriculture, says Wayne Kelly, project co-ordinator with Learning Commons at Brandon University’s Rural Development Institute.
“The question is how do we get youth engaged because they’re not the digital experts that many people think,” says Kelly.
If they have an advantage, it’s not that they come all ready to jump into the tractor cab, but that they’re good at learning.
“They’re not afraid of technology, or of learning technology,” says Kelly. “That’s probably the main advantage that youth have over older generations. And their style of learning fits well with adopting new technologies.”
But the ongoing challenge for rural areas and for sectors like agriculture, says Kelly, is finding out what youth want and making them aware of the opportunities while they’re still at a much younger age than Grade 11 or 12, when plans are already being formed and parents have made up their minds that their kids need to go off to university and be successful somewhere else.
“Digital jobs are front and centre these days and we have all of these digital jobs in farming, but you are hard-pressed to find those being communicated well to youth,” says Kelly. “The same thing goes for sectors across the board in rural communities; rural businesses need support in developing an online presence or market place. Rural non-profits and governments need digital training and support. There’s a whole bunch of social media opportunities in terms of communication and building social capital through online that we need to do more intentionally and deliberately, and youth should be at the forefront of that. We need to have them involved in community decision-making, visioning and planning.”
Hamiota is one small, rural Manitoba community that has been listening to its youth and putting infrastructure in place to encourage them to stay and operate tech businesses in the community. The community rolled out high-speed, fibre optics internet to homeowners and businesses for a flat charge of $60 per month.
“I was talking to a teacher who’s based out of Hamiota about what the youth want to be involved in,” says Kelly. “They want things like community gardens and recreation activities in the community. Until we actually listen to youth, and engage them, they’re not going to be as invested in their communities as they need to be for them to think about having a future there.”
But youth aren’t often invited to the table. Instead, they’re overlooked because they don’t act in traditional ways or have the same expectations as their parents. An example is volunteerism. They don’t want to clean up the hall but they might help run an organization’s social media account or write blog posts, and those are the kind of volunteer roles that these days can lead to entrepreneurship. “There are many ways that youth can contribute but they’re not being asked,” says Kelly.
“We sometimes overemphasize the number of youth that are leaving our small communities, but for the ones that stay, we don’t support them or make them aware of opportunities earlier, or help them be entrepreneurs. If we are not supporting youth to start with, we’re not building that culture.”
Over the next decade, many farm businesses may need to develop new recruitment strategies if they are to compete for the dwindling supply of workers. So the question is, why wait?
The most common and successful recruitment method in agriculture is still word of mouth, with over two-thirds of employers using it to recruit workers in 2018. They were less likely to recruit workers through the internet (46 per cent), the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (33 per cent), social media (30 per cent), and local employment centers (30 per cent).
While word of mouth has many advantages, it can also limit the number of potential applicants.
Many employers will need to expand their networks to reach the widest possible pool of candidates and use techniques such as advertising in traditional and online newspapers, placement agencies and job boards. They will also need to be more innovative if they want to attract more Canadians to the sector, for example by using web-enabled job-search tools dedicated to the agriculture sector, the development of which has already been identified as a priority by the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force’s Workforce Action Plan.
They could also offer more apprenticeships and other forms of experiential learning, which is more common in other industries. Combining classroom education and farm experience and developing short-term (two- to four-week) basic farm orientation programs for those interested in a career in agriculture has also been proposed as a possible recruitment aid.
Agricultural employers may need to take on the task of training the skilled workers they need. Although lack of qualified workers and appropriate skill sets was one of the major challenges for producers when it came to recruiting workers; only 48 per cent of agricultural employers had offered training to their workers in the previous 12 months.
Employers highly value experience and are hesitant to take on inexperienced or untrained workers. But employers who are willing and able to provide training are likely to find it easier to hire and keep their workers, says the action plan.
Recruiting from under-represented groups is starting to pick up. It isn’t always easy. There can be barriers, and there can be some preconceptions to get past, but at least there’s hope.
Two under-represented groups stand out in recent research by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council. They are disabled workers, and First Nations workers. Canada’s 2016 census showed only 2.5 per cent of agricultural employees identify as Aboriginal.
Few of the employers surveyed by CAHRC, however, saw this group as a solution to their labour challenges, and those who have successfully employed Aboriginal people note it can take good communication to overcome cultural differences regarding attitudes about work, plus flexibility in work schedules to accommodate cultural requirements.
There are attitudinal issues with hiring the disabled as well, yet these were often based on a misunderstanding of how disability is defined. Farmers often associate disability with total blindness or severe mobility impairments. However, many forms of disability do not preclude agricultural employment.
Once disabilities were properly defined, many employers realized that they already employ workers with some form of disability.
“A better understanding of the physical or mental limitations of certain types of disabilities among employers may lead to better outcomes,” says a CAHRC report.
Agriculture is already looking outside the agricultural community, and in some cases outside the country, to recruit workers. That’s only going to intensify if, as expected, rural populations stagnate or decline, and as farms consolidate and grow bigger and there is less family ownership.
There are causes for optimism, though.
Immigration is expected to be a large source of growth for the Canadian population, with 350,000 immigrants expected annually over the next 10 years. Typically, of course, they are not choosing a career in agriculture, and it’s anticipated that only 17,000 immigrants will enter the agricultural workforce in the next decade.
However, agricultural employers surveyed by CAHRC for its recent agricultural labour market forecast to 2029 suggested that there is a need to encourage recent immigrants to locate to rural communities though things such as promoting employment, education, social and recreational opportunities, not only for potential workers, but also for their families.
“It will be important to develop strong relationships with immigrant settlement agencies so that their staff understands the employment opportunities and services that are available in rural communities,” says the CAHRC report.
Temporary foreign workers have long filled the gap for seasonal employment on Canada’s farms, and producers place a high value on them. While a program like the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program (SAWP) is vital to producers, not all can access it, and many believe the commodity list on which it is based is too limited.
“Despite the success of SAWP and other foreign worker programs, our prior research has found that producers do not feel that existing permanent immigration programs, with their focus on university graduates, are well suited to the needs of agriculture,” says the CAHRC report. “As such, they may find more success in turning to recruiting recent refugees to Canada which have noticeably increased in recent years. The ability for producers to help foreign workers transition to become permanent residents or Canadian citizens could also be helpful. However, this option is not always readily accessible as the ability to sponsor foreign workers for permanent residency varies widely province-to-province.”
The competition for immigrants
Canada is one of the most highly urbanized countries in the world. It’s a process that is increasing not only here but in countries around the world and it has a profound effect on population growth, with implications for labour supply, says journalist John Ibbitson, co-author (with Darrell Bricker) of Empty Planet.
Urbanization is the lead reason fertility rates are crashing throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and also throughout parts of the Middle East, and south and southeast Asia, says Ibbitson.
In Empty Planet, Ibbitson explains that people who move from a rural subsistence farming economy to an urban environment tend to raise both their income and education levels. Over time, they also have fewer children, which leads to ever more prosperity for subsequent generations raised in the urban environment. This makes them less like to emigrate, and it means countries that are moving towards more stringent anti-immigration policies may live to regret it in a future, labour-constrained era.
“We started out to say that every country has to be like Canada or it declines,” says Ibbitson. “That is to say, either you open your door to immigration or your population will decline, but it’s not as simple as that.”
Japan’s population was declining rapidly, but the Japanese are a culturally, linguistically, and racially cohesive people and they simply cannot imagine a Japan that is multicultural, so they accept decline as a consequence of their decision to live in a cohesive society.
Europe is also struggling with immigration, and some countries that had opened their doors are now closing them.
“Then you have the lucky few, Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand where immigration has been there since the first days of non-indigenous settlement, and where there is a strong culture of accepting immigrants,” says Ibbitson.
That’s great news for Canada, he says. “It means that Canada, even though it has a fertility rate every bit as low as everyone else’s, will be able to sustain and even expand its population, which will provide the young people needed to fill shortages.”
With continued, open immigration, Canada should be able to grow its population into the middle of the century at least, but there are two things that could go wrong. The first is a turn away from accepted immigration policies, which is starting to happen in the U.S. The second is the very real risk of immigrants, over the long term, becoming a scarce commodity.
“In the immediate term, I think Canada is going to be fine,” says Ibbitson. “In the long term, we’re going to be challenged along with everyone else.”