Labour shortages costly for agriculture sector
Labour shortages are chronically complex in agriculture. They have been extensively studied, but no simple solution has emerged. Farm work is simply not appealing or accessible to many potential workers.
There is a yawning gap between the kinds of workers needed and the kinds of workers available. The diversity of the agriculture sector requires a broad range of skills. This issue is becoming more complicated as farming evolves in the face of climate change, economic pressures, mechanization, and a back-to-theland movement which is reviving the small family farm.
Here’s where we are. According to the New Brunswick Agricultural Labour Market Forecast to 2025, the province, in 2014, employed 7,500 people in the agriculture sector. The field fruit and vegetable industry was the largest employer (22 per cent of the labour force), followed by tree fruit and vine (16 per cent) and dairy (14 per cent). Some 400 jobs were unfilled, costing the sector $7 million in lost sales. The situation goes beyond our provincial borders, it is estimated that unfilled jobs across the country cost $1.5 billion in lost sales in 2014.
The labour shortage hits some industries harder than others. The field fruit and vegetable industry currently has one of the largest labour gaps in the sector, and that gap is predicted to widen the fastest of any agriculture industry. The dairy industry, on the other hand, will see its labour gap shrink significantly over the same time period.
While demand for labour will decline overall in this province, the labour pool will shrink even faster. According to research conducted by the Canadian Agriculture Human Resource Council, a combination of stable production growth in some key industries and increased productivity in others will reduce the demand for labour in New Brunswick from now until 2025. But by then there will be 800 fewer domestic workers in the province’s agricultural labour pool.
With the supply of workers shrinking faster than the sector’s demand for labour, the province is expected to see a widening gap between the available workforce and the sector’s labour needs, resulting in significantly more jobs going unfilled.
Two key factors are responsible for reducing New Brunswick’s agricultural labour supply: retirement and the decreasing number of young people in the province. In 2011, 57 per cent of our agriculture workforce was 45 years of age or older. The number of young people entering the field is expected to decrease by 12 per cent over the next decade, one of the most rapid declines in the sector in Canada.
So how can we address this growing disparity? There are limited sources of farm workers; if they are not home grown, they must be recruited elsewhere.
Currently, New Brunswick’s reliance on foreign workers is low; only 1.4 per cent of its workforce is foreign, compared to a national average of 12 per cent. This is due in part to the complexity of the regulations around the hiring of foreign workers, which is particularly challenging for smaller farming operations with diverse commodities and those who do not have significant administrative infrastructures. The NB Agricultural Alliance has recommended changes in government programs and processes which will expedite and simplify the movement of workers, such as multi-year applications for regions with high and chronic labour shortages. Re-defining the parameters of primary agriculture is also impor- tant; restricting foreign workers to a specific commodity creates major obstacles for mixed farms, which are the majority in this province. Current government programs for foreign workers are not a good fit for much of New Brunswick agriculture.
Increasing the number of New Brunswickers who choose farm work remains a challenge, but efforts are being made in several directions. One is to train unemployed workers for agricultural jobs. Another is to attract farmers and new entrants to farming from other regions by offering them access to land, training and support to get started. The third is to provide agriculture-linked activities to the curriculum which combines theory and practice for all school grades through the Ag in the Classroom program and for community college students. These initiatives come from non-governmental organizations who recognize both the economic and social value of farming and food production.
Ignoring ongoing labour shortages is short-sighted; it jeopardizes future expansion of the sector. The agriculture industry is the second most important natural resource-based contributor to our provincial economy after the energy sector. Farm cash receipts have increased by 11 per cent since 2012. Agriculture and food manufacturing exports (excluding seafood) have shown an almost $200 million increase since 2012.
The agriculture industry is at the heart of rural New Brunswick, providing some 13,000 jobs in primary agriculture and food manufacturing. This is a sunrise industry with a bright future if its labour issues can be addressed to establish farming as a sustainable driver of progress in this province.