Secure labour sources needed to meet $75-billion ag-export goal

 

In 2017, the federal government challenged Canada’s agricultural producers to reach an export target of $75 billion by 2025 – fully $20 billion more than current levels. The government has identified agriculture as one of a handful of sectors that could spur economic growth.

Yet the huge potential for increased global trade for Canadian agri-foods is likely to go unfulfilled unless the agriculture sector’s chronic labour crisis is resolved.

Temporary foreign workers

The importance of temporary foreign workers to Canada’s farmers has been explained in previous blog posts. When farmers cannot find enough domestic workers to help them run their operations, access to temporary foreign workers, and the ability to keep them in the country, is crucial to the growth of the sector.

Proposed changes to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program and to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program are making it harder for farmers to access that labour lifeline.

Youth unemployment

We spoke with Joe Hersch, managing director of Youth Jobs Canada, who said that young Canadians could also be part of the solution.

“Unemployment rates among youth are in the range of 13 to 14 per cent,” said Joe. “That’s about double the Canadian unemployment rate, which stands at around seven per cent”.

Youth Jobs Canada is the only national employment website that focuses strictly on youth. It makes employment resources available to youth, and helps bridge the divide between them and potential employers. “We wanted to give youth the tools that they need to go after jobs, but also to allow employers to post jobs,” Joe continued.

The response to the site, which launched in October 2017, has been very favourable among employers, but the uptake among youth is growing more slowly. Joe commented that job seekers can sometimes be unrealistic in terms of the level at which they expect to enter a career path.

Youth Jobs Canada is building awareness among young people, primarily through work fairs and social media.

“Social media is where young people live,” said Joe, “and if you can direct your message through social media that’s how you can make sure you’re being seen. Having that interaction is so valuable, so that youth feel comfortable that we’re identifying with what they need.”

Services such as Youth Jobs Canada are valuable tools in the agricultural sector’s recruitment toolkit. Some others include Acme School’s Career Connections, Alberta 4-H, Ag in the Classroom and Alberta Agriculture and Forestry’s Green Certificate Program. Nonetheless, support from the government is the best hope our agricultural producers have of a viable solution to this long-term challenge.

Why the Canadian government needs to implement the Agricultural Workforce Action Plan

Canada’s agriculture sector is struggling with a labour shortage crisis, made more challenging with recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP).

It is time for the government to step up and make the process simpler and faster for the people who help feed Canadians every day.

In 2012, agriculture and agri-food industries employed 2.1 million people in Canada, accounting for one in eight jobs. Of these, about 39,700 were temporary foreign workers.

There are many reasons why Canada’s farmers find it necessary to supplement their Canadian workforce with temporary foreign workers, including:

  • As rural dwellers migrate to cities, it is increasingly difficult to attract workers for rural jobs.
  • The seasonality of the industry makes it hard for farmers to offer full-time, permanent jobs.
  • Farming is hard work, and many people are not attracted to its strenuous nature and often harsh working conditions.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP)

The ability to hire foreign workers as farmers need them is invaluable for many Canadian farmers.

Unfortunately, in response to alleged abuse of the program by industries outside agriculture, the federal government made changes in June 2014. Although primary agriculture was exempt from some of the changes, many others have had unintended consequences. It is now a convoluted and lengthy process for farmers to bring in the workers they require.

The challenges experienced by beef producers and other farmers are outlined in ‘Canada’s agriculture sector needs help and foreign workers are part of the solution’.

The Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Workforce Action Plan

The agriculture industry has collaborated on recommendations for addressing the labour crisis. Goals for meeting the industry’s non-domestic labour requirements include:

    • Short term: Streamline the existing systems and processes within the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to help the agriculture and agri-food sector successfully access non-domestic labour and adapt to policy changes.
    • Medium term: A new streamlined program designed for, and dedicated to, the agriculture and agri-food industry.
    • Long term:
      • Improve pathways to permanent residency for agriculture and agri-food workers in alignment with Citizenship and Immigration Canada; and
      • Implement long-term elements of the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-food Workforce Action Plan, to ensure a strong domestic labour supply into the future.

Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resources Council (CAHRC), said “The gap between the demand for workers and worker supply has nearly doubled in the last 10 years. Based on increasing demand, both domestically and internationally, for Canada’s food and agriculture products, the gap is expected to double again in the next 10 years, to 114,000 workers by 2025.”

“The council,” she continued, “along with 75 other industry associations, supports the implementation of the Canadian Agriculture and Agri-food Workforce Action Plan to address the immediate and pervasive issues of the inadequate supply of workers currently impeding businesses in Canada. The effort is guided by a national labour task force, and includes recommendations that are practical and essential to ensuring the safety, sustainability, and affordability of food for all Canadians and that support Canada’s continued position as a leader and significant contributor to food production for the whole world.”

The role of government in keeping agriculture growing

Agriculture is a unique industry because operators deal with live animals and perishable products. If they don’t have the labour force they require to get their work done, animals could suffer, and crops could spoil. It’s imperative that the federal government streamline the process so that operators can apply for assistance under the TFWP and bring in workers when they need them.

You can read more about the agriculture labour crisis in the following articles:

How population changes are driving the beef industry

This is the first in our Spotlight on the Speakers series, featuring speakers from February’s Alberta Beef Industry Conference. This week, Andrew Ramlo, executive director of Urban Futures, spoke with us about the changing faces, places and consumption patterns of the Canadian beef market.

How age, ethnicity and lifestyles are changing the domestic market

Andrew, whose company, Urban Futures, specializes in demographics, explained that the domestic market for beef, and indeed all agricultural products, is undergoing a significant change on three major fronts:

Age: For the first time in decades, the baby boomers are no longer the dominant generation in terms of numbers. There are now more Millennials and Generation Xers than post-war boomers. This shift is having an impact on all factors of the market, including  what people consume and how they consume it.

“This younger generation demands to know where their food comes from, and how it was produced, giving rise to the popularity of niche products such as hormone-free, grass-fed and organic,” Andrew said. They are also increasingly in tune with diet and health, and this affects their food choices.

Lifestyle: “One of the major drivers of the market will be convenience,” Andrew said. “People have busy lives and kids to feed, so they need to have convenience in the ways things are prepared and packaged.”

Ethnicity: With a population that is increasingly ethnically diverse, the types of food eaten by Canadians is changing, and so is the way it is purchased and prepared. Canadian food producers must pay attention to the ethnicities of their consumers, and their eating habits or preferences.

An export market driven by growth

While the domestic market is being driven more by change than by the potential for significant growth, growth can be expected in the export market.

“The Asia-Pacific markets are going to be very significant,” said Andrew. “Particularly in China, there are a lot of consumers who have not historically eaten beef, but who are starting to be able to afford it.”

How immigration could affect beef production

We know immigration is affecting what Canadians eat, and how they prepare their food. But there is also the potential for more immigrants to be employed in the beef production industry.

“The Canadian government has increased their immigration targets from what it has historically been – between 275,000 and 300,000 – to about 340,000 by 2021,” said Andrew. “This is being done by and large in response to our aging population; to give us the ability to fill in the labour force as the baby boomers head toward retirement.”

“The government really needs to look at aspects of our labour market and do more targeted recruitment among potential immigrants.”

You can read more about the impact of demographics on the beef industry in Changing demographics mean changes at the dinner table.

Watch for future ‘Spotlight on the speakers’ posts.

2017: Cattle feeders’ year in review

This past year saw a number of challenges arise that gave cattle feeders cause for concern, such as changing legislation and regulations, taxation, and trade. At each step, the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA) has played an active role in advocating and negotiating for our members.

Here are some of the major projects we worked on in 2017:

Strategic plan

In March, ACFA board members, staff and industry partners met to renew the organization’s vision, mission and strategic plan. Here is a summary of the outcome of those talks:

Vision: Champion a sustainable cattle feeding sector in Alberta.

Mission: Pursue innovative and collaborative solutions for a thriving Alberta beef industry

Strategic priority #1: Build ACFA membership by delivering value to our members.

Strategic priority #2: Engage with the provincial government to strengthen the health of the cattle feeding sector in Alberta.

Strategic priority #3: Collaborate with partners to advance the industry.

Strategic priority #4: Strengthen ACFA governance.

Advocacy

There were many issues affecting cattle feeders in 2017 in which ACFA played an active role in advocating for our members’ interests. These included:

    • The Lethbridge County head tax which would severely impact cattle feeders in that area, resulting in feedlot closures.
    • The provincial carbon levy which could add costs by as much as $6 to $7 per head.
    • Federal income tax changes that will harm the viability of family-owned corporations.
    • Infrastructure needs, which are not receiving adequate provincial or federal funding.
    • Labour shortages, ongoing issues with the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP), and proposed changes to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP).
    • Farm safety, employment standards and the Employment Standards Code.
    • Trade, and access to new markets for cattle feeders.

Outreach

ACFA’s communications with stakeholders and the public included:

    • Key provincial government ministers, decision-makers, MLAs and MPs.
    • Members, industry and the media.
    • Feedlot tours for educators, students, and government officials.

Watch for status reports, as we continue to stay on top of these issues throughout the coming year.

Canada’s agriculture sector needs help – and foreign workers are part of the solution

The agriculture sector is in the midst of an acute labour crisis. For Canada’s cattle feeders, temporary foreign workers are a lifeline when they can’t fill vital positions with Canadian candidates. The Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association (ACFA) is working hard to ensure feedlots have access to skilled labour when Canadians cannot be found. 

In spite of high vacancies in the cattle feeding sector, it’s becomingly increasingly difficult to access temporary foreign workers – applying to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) has been a convoluted and time-consuming process since changes were made in 2014.

How applications are made

Feedlot owners use the TFWP’s Agricultural Stream to access workers for year-round, permanent jobs. The current program attempts to fit a variety of industries and sectors into a one-size-fits-all design and does not recognize that a feedlot’s need for year-round, permanent employees differs greatly from seasonal farming requirements. 

In a recent Temporary Foreign Worker Program Primary Ag Review, cattle feeders provided their feedback on the program, with suggestions for improvements. The feedback revealed some common trends and serious frustrations:

  • Paperwork timelines: Bringing foreign workers in under the TFWP Agricultural Stream takes six months or longer for processing of paperwork, including a Service Canada Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) and the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada Work Permit. This is too long for feedlot employers needing to fill vacancies to care for and feed live cattle. 
  • Housing: To qualify for the TFWP, feedlot employers must provide subsidized accommodation and a positive housing inspection. Most feedlots do not have on-site accommodation so local housing is found for workers. Employers must rent and furnish accommodation before applying — creating a months-long financial burden that feedlot owners must endure with no guarantee of a successful application. Differences between year-round and seasonal accommodation are not currently recognized and no consideration is being given to the unique needs of year-round feedlot workers.
  • National Commodity List (NCL): To apply under the Agricultural Stream, the feedlot operator must select one commodity, or production stream, per application. Workers brought in under the program are then only allowed to work within that one commodity. The rule doesn’t realistically fit with feedlot operations, where workers typically have responsibilities that fall under two or more of these commodities. LMIAs are being refused for this reason. 
  • Changing requirements: Job postings must reference the federally regulated wage rate. When the wage rates are changed, notification is not provided so if the wrong rate is advertised, then LMIA applications are often declined multiple times, at no fault of the feedlot employer. Endless back and forth follow-up with Service Canada can result in the loss of potential candidates because feedlots are unable to indicate to these workers when approval will actually, if ever, take place.
  • A disconnect between federal and provincial rules: Provincial frameworks often don’t align with federal frameworks. In some provinces, formal paperwork has to be submitted to the province in order to begin the TFW application process. When the TFW application ends up being a long, drawn-out process, the provincial paperwork can actually expire, leaving the feedlot to start the entire process over again.
  • Immigration access restrictions for feedlot workers: Under Canada’s merit-based immigration system it is very difficult for feedlot operators and processing plants to keep highly skilled workers in the country – even when they have vital experience and on-the-job training. Federal and provincial governments must recognize farm and food workers as important and prioritize them for immigration.

ACFA works with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council and the Agriculture and Agri-Food Labour Task Force to research and bring these issues forward. It is crucial that the uniqueness of feedlot operations is taken into consideration and that blanket requirements are removed from the program. 

In a recent post we wrote about the Alberta Immigration Nominee program, whereby businesses can apply for permanent resident status for their temporary foreign workers. But changes to that program could also make it harder for feedlot operators to keep certain highly skilled workers in the country.

Will immigration program changes help the agriculture labour crisis?

Photo Credit: GrainsWest magazine
Photographer: Bryce Meyer

 

On the surface, it appears that proposed changes to the Alberta Immigrant Nominee Program (AINP) may help alleviate the chronic labour crisis currently affecting our agriculture sector. However, on closer inspection, some of the changes will actually prevent feedlots from nominating certain highly skilled foreign workers.

The good…

The AINP allows foreign nationals to apply for permanent residency while they work in Canada under a temporary foreign worker permit. The program is not new, but until now, applicants have had to select from multiple streams and sub-categories under which eligibility was assessed. The proposed changes, which take effect on January 2, 2018, will simplify the application process and standardize eligibility criteria, making it simpler for applicants and streamlining the review process.

Of particular note, the new AINP will allow applicants from all skill levels to apply. Up until now, lower-skilled workers (such as feedlot labourers) have not had an option to apply for permanent residency in Canada. As of January 2, they will be eligible to apply under the AINP as long as they meet work experience, education, income and language requirements, among other things.

The bad & the ugly…

The federal government’s Express Entry program has grown increasingly more restrictive, forcing many skilled feedlot workers to look for alternative application streams. Further, the English language requirements of the program prevented many from applying. Luckily, the AINP has served as an option to workers who a) could not gain sufficient points under Express Entry due to their education, age, or a variety of other factors, and/or b) could not apply due to an inability to meet minimum language benchmarks.

As of January 2, all AINP applicants will need to provide proof that they have the equivalent of a Canadian High School Diploma. Further, they will need to pass an English language test. This will cover all skill levels; from pen riders to feed truck drivers or labourers, etc.

While it’s true that many feedlots employ highly skilled foreign workers with veterinary-related degrees and excellent English language skills, many more employ high-skilled workers who do not have high school diplomas or do not meet the language requirements. These workers often have decades of related work experience. Many could pass the speaking and listening portion of the exam, but cannot pass the reading/writing portions as they do not exercise these skills on a daily basis. Unfortunately, once the changes come into place these foreign workers will no longer have any option to pursue permanent resident status in Canada.

Why the agriculture sector needs foreign workers

For Canada’s agriculture sector, many factors have contributed to a labour shortage that makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to find help – factors such as harsh working conditions, the seasonality of the work and the steady flow of young people into urban areas.

According to ‘Agriculture 2025,’ the labour market information report from the Canadian Agriculture Human Resources Council, there were 59,200 more agricultural jobs than candidates in 2014. This labour gap is expected to rise to 113,800 – 27 per cent of jobs – by 2025. In other words, Canadian farmers cannot fill their jobs from the available pool of Canadian applicants.

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been invaluable in helping alleviate the shortage. It allows employers to bring in foreign workers on a temporary basis to fill jobs that can’t be filled by Canadians. The AINP, on the other hand, allows those workers to apply for permanent residency while they are working in Canada on a temporary permit.

To learn more about the labour crisis, check out ’12 must-know facts about the agricultural labour shortage and why it matters to Canadians’.

How Inside Education is bringing agricultural insights to the next generation

Producing food for a hungry world is an important job, and one farmers have been managing for generations. But today’s farmers have considerations that didn’t concern their predecessors – such as how to produce food while demonstrating their concern for the environment, and how to deal with a chronic labour crisis.

One organization is supporting Alberta’s agriculture industry by introducing these considerations to grade school students. Inside Education is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to inspiring and engaging young stewards by incorporating environmental and natural resource education into their classrooms.

Kathryn Wagner, program director at Inside Education, explained that our society is often polarized about issues that matter most. “Our ability to balance a healthy environment with a productive economy demands a careful look at the range of values at play — the spectrum that lies between black and white,” she said. “Our unique programs immerse learners into the big picture, giving them a balanced look at key issues. We challenge everyone to become responsible citizens by understanding the science, technology and issues that affect our world.”

How Inside Education works

For over 30 years, Inside Education has been teaching students about the diverse natural resource topics and issues affecting the agriculture, energy and forestry industries. They have four program areas:

“It all culminates in us bringing current, accurate, locally relevant information, to teachers and students across Alberta, to complement the curriculum,” said Kathryn.

“There are lots of different places where these sorts of topics align,” she said, “from science and social studies to food systems, sustainability and careers.”

Inside Education and cattle feeders

Inside Education works directly with more than 25,000 students every year, in 80-plus communities. In its recent agriculture program, 28 teachers participated in a feedlot tour so they could see firsthand what the industry looks like and what happens in a cattle feeding operation.

“Agriculture is such a fundamental topic of conversation here in the province – it guides our society, our economy, and our environment,” said Kathryn. “If we can provide these experiences and this information to young people, then we will have young stewards who are ready to go on and shape what our agricultural landscape will look like for years to come.”

Careers in agriculture

Organizations such as Inside Education could also play a role in helping alleviate the agricultural labour shortage. “There are so many misconceptions about what it means to work in agriculture,” Kathryn explained. “Students may want to leave their communities, and we can show them opportunities available in their own backyards and how they can contribute to sustainable agriculture in Alberta.”

In 2016, the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association (ACFA) attended Inside Education’s Youth Summit, in Brooks, Alta., where junior high school students were introduced to careers in agriculture, including the cattle feeding sector. It’s events like these that can help excite students about the many career opportunities in farming.

In earlier blog posts, we have written about other organizations or programs that are helping educate young people about the opportunities in agriculture, including Agriculture in the Classroom and Career Connections.

How farm tours can help the agriculture labour crisis

One day in mid-July, a group of people from across Canada, toured Chinook Feeders in Nanton, Alberta to get an on-the-ground feel for what goes on in a cattle-feeding operation.   

The group from Agriculture in the Classroom – an organization dedicated to enhancing the knowledge, understanding and appreciation of agriculture in everyday life – was just one of many such tours that happen at Canadian farms throughout the year.

cattle being vaccinated and implanted

An industry working together

Even though the people touring Chinook Feeders on that day were already involved in agriculture or food production, it’s helpful for them to be aware of all the different types of agriculture being practised. What better way for them to become ambassadors for an industry that has so many career opportunities and possibilities for job seekers?

Karen Carle, the Alberta representative for Agriculture in the Classroom explained: “for this year’s tour in Alberta, we wanted to highlight the diversity of the agriculture and agri-food industry. In addition to the feedlot, we toured a spin (small plot intensive) farm in Calgary, an oilseed innovation company, an elk farm and a honey producer. In addition, we held sharing sessions where we come together to collaborate and learn from initiatives going on in each province. This year we also had a public trust panel to learn from industry experts and explore the role ag education can play in building public trust.”

Aside from the tours, Ag in the Classroom’s primary activity is providing curriculum-based teaching resources to schools. Some of their initiatives include:

    • Canadian Agricultural Literacy Week (CALW). More than 95,000 students and 3,500 classrooms have been visited by industry speakers and readers across Canada.
    • Development of a national high school teaching tool, All About Food, with a comprehensive fact book and accompanying interactive website, with teacher guide.
    • International Year of Pulses education components in partnership with Pulse Canada for 2016.

Ag in the Classroom uses these tools to help ensure that young people have complete, balanced information about the opportunities available to them in agriculture.

Why is it important to get agriculture into the curriculum?

Canadian farmers are dealing with a chronic labour crisis. There are many reasons for this, including rising retirement, the seasonal nature of the work, the often harsh working conditions and the long hours. Another reason is the tendency for young people to want to head for the cities after leaving school. Ag in the Classroom provides an opportunity for students to see the flip side of those factors and discover the many careers available and the opportunities that exist.

“Many teachers want their students to learn about agriculture, but without the right programs and resources to support them, they don’t always know where to start,” said Karen. “Ag in the Classroom is really about providing accurate, balanced, current and science-based information about agriculture and packaging it in a way that teachers can use in the classroom. With most people removed from life on the farm, and so much misinformation circulating online, Ag in the Classroom’s role is more important than ever.”

Another program that teaches students about careers in their rural communities is Career Connections, which we featured in ‘How cattle feeders are helping create a future for young people in agriculture’.

You can read more about the agricultural labour crisis in ’12 must-know facts about the agriculture labour crisis (and why it matters to Canadians)’.

Why a new safety audit will help feedlots operate safely

Alberta’s feedlot owners work hard to ensure that their operations are safe – for their employees, animals and the environment.

In recent blog posts, we have described how programs such as ACFA’s Alberta Feedlot Safety Program and the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council’s (CAHRC) Agri HR Toolkit are helping cattle feeders build comprehensive, effective safety programs. But how can business owners be sure they are implementing those programs correctly and fully?

That’s where auditing comes in. We spoke with Nick Schefter, senior safety coordinator with Critical Hazard HSE Ltd., to learn about the next step for feedlot operators’ safety programs.

Why audits matter

Nick explained that an audit is a valuable chance to make sure safety program implementation is on track.

“We come in to ensure they have understood and introduced every element of the program correctly, and that it is being implemented fully across the operation. We review all the processes put in place and we look at documentation to make sure they’re filling it out. For instance, if vehicles are supposed to be inspected weekly, we check whether that’s happening and being properly documented.”

Why feedlot owners care about safety

The Alberta Feedlot Safety Program is widely supported in the industry because it covers everything from employee health and safety to environmental protection and emergency response. It is the first program to help feedlot operators create a safety program customized to their industry.

Many cattle feeding companies have implemented the ACFA’s Alberta Feedlot Safety Program. “These companies are leaders in the industry when it comes to safety,” Nick said.

Implementing the safety program and passing regular safety audits prevents injuries and fatalities so everyone returns home safely from the feedlot. 

If you’d like to read more about farm safety, and cattle feeders’ initiatives, check out these blog posts:

New HR Toolkit provides the building blocks for an effective farm safety program

Today’s farmer realizes the importance of formalized safety programs when it comes to keeping their employees safe and their operations running smoothly. But the challenge with standardized safety programs for farms is the unique nature of every operation.

That’s why the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) put together an Agri HR Toolkit specifically for farms. The toolkit gives agricultural operations of all types and sizes the information and resources they need to understand their responsibilities and liabilities, and to build a customized workforce management program.

CAHRC has recently updated the toolkit, and the Alberta Cattle Feeders’ Association has purchased a subscription for every one of their current members.

What is an HR toolkit?

That’s a question we asked CAHRC’s Project Manager, Tracy Biernacki-Dusza. Tracy explained that the toolkit covers everything involved in managing a workforce. It isn’t a safety program, but it does include a whole section on health and safety, with lots of detailed information on everything that should be considered when building a program, including steps to get started, links to other templates, and action plans. Some of the elements include:

    • Canadian Occupational Health and Safety legislation
    • WHMIS
    • Provincial legislation
    • Workplace conditions and expectations
    • Policies on drug and alcohol abuse
    • Hazard audits
    • Farm equipment safety
    • Animal safety
    • Bio-security

“It helps the business owner consider every aspect of their workforce management, to protect themselves and their employees. It includes everything from health and safety policies to hiring; from workplace wellness to succession planning – and lots more,” said Tracy.

Why is the toolkit an important resource?

Because agriculture is such a unique industry, the Agri HR Toolkit has been designed to be extremely customizable. “Rather than a checklist, we’ve included the information in a human resources handbook,” Tracy explained. “It runs through all the policies and procedures a farm operator should have in place, and helps them work out how they pertain to their operation.”

As part of their work with ACFA, CAHRC has helped create seven different feedlot role job descriptions, complete with training requirements, and has conducted training sessions on recruitment, selection and hiring.

Good for owners and employees alike

The primary purpose of the toolkit is to help business owners comply with standards and legislation. By helping them make their operations safer for their employees and visitors to their farms, it will also protect them against employment related claims.

You can read more about safety in the agriculture industry in these earlier blog posts: