Country Life in BC

January 2017

Help wanted

by Peter Mitham

VANCOUVER – Demand for farm workers will hit 45,000 by 2025, up from approximately 43,300 in 2014, and while the increase doesn’t sound like a lot, an older, diminishing farm work force means there are a lot fewer people available than there was once was.

A recent report from the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) pegs the shortfall in workers at 11,200 by 2025, up from approximately 9,000 today. Statistics Canada, in turn, estimates BC’s farm workforce at just 27,500 in 2014, suggesting the gap between demand and available workers could be even bigger.

To address the shortfall, the province announced $43,500 for a BC agriculture-horticulture sector labour market partnership on December 6.

“It’s looking at the semi-skilled and skilled level – the manager and above,” BC Agriculture Council executive director Reg Ens explains. “We’ve had a problem with low-skilled for a long time, and there’s some things that we’ve been doing to meet that need, but now we’ve identified this semi-skilled/skilled [shortfall].”

BCAC and the BC Landscape and Nursery Association will administer the funds, which will assist in bringing together industry associations and employers to determine the horticulture sector’s key labour force challenges.

“It’s cultivating connections and looking for opportunities. Are there pools of under-employed people that we’re not attracting?” Ens says. “Do these under-employed people that are interested know where the opportunities are?”

The project is set to complete by March 15. It complements similar initiatives for the landscape and abattoir sectors.

No small task

But resolving the labour issue isn’t easy. The lack of workers who are both reliable and equipped with the skills to handle the unique challenges of farm work has been a perennial problem in BC.

While proximity to urban areas should ensure ready access to a large pool of labour, there’s also greater competition from other sectors for workers. Often, the alternatives also pay better and have more attractive working conditions than field work.

“There is not a simple way forward,” says Debra Hauer, project manager with CAHRC.

She notes that BC is already doing plenty of things right: many employers in the province have low turnover and there are more than the usual amount of training programs, both formal and informal, highlighting opportunities in the sector. These include everything from Agriculture in the Classroom programs to sector-specific initiatives such as the organic sector provides.

“There’s lots of groups doing interesting things in British Columbia,” she says.

While some sectors, such as dairy and poultry, have embraced automation and face a shortage of workers with appropriate skills, the backbone of the BC farm labour force is horticultural workers. Approximately 48% of farm workers are engaged in producing and harvesting fruits, vegetables, flowers and other products.

CAHRC says the fact that many of these jobs are seasonal in nature works against employers.

Since few of the positions are year-round, many operations find themselves forced to let workers go, and then scramble to rehire staff in subsequent seasons.

The temporary nature of the work also creates a highly mobile workforce. This has led to many hort operations turning to foreign workers.

CAHRC said the shortfall in 2014 was made up through 6,800 temporary foreign workers (TFWs) – and even then, there was still a need for approximately 3,000 more domestic workers. The labour shortfall costs the sector approximately $70 million annually, CAHRC says.

With the shortfall in domestic workers increasing over the next decade, there are growing efforts to make it easier for farmers to hire foreign help.

“This may include re-evaluating the effectiveness of Canada’s immigration programs in terms of meeting the needs of the agriculture sector,” writes the Conference Board of Canada in a recent briefing paper, produced with CAHRC’s support. “Without TFWs, we may face the prospect of a significant portion of Canada’s arable land lying fallow. That would be a tragedy.”