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Labour Gap In ‘Invisible’ Agri-Food Sector Points To Diverse Career Opportunities

on January 28 | in Ag News | by | with No Comments

Feature story from the University of Guelph
By Andrew Vowles

Until about three years ago, Chloe Van Acker wouldn’t have seen herself as a student at the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College (OAC). Growing up in south Guelph with not a farm field in sight, she loved baking and enjoyed high school chemistry.

Connecting the dots to agri-food career opportunities for more young people, especially those in urban areas, is a pressing concern among Canadian policy makers and the country’s agri-food sector facing an ever-growing shortage of employees.

That ongoing shortfall was highlighted in a new national report called “Agriculture 2025: How the Sector’s Labour Challenges Will Shape Its Future.” It was released last fall by the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC).

The gap between labour demand and the domestic workforce in agriculture has doubled during the past decade to 59,000 people from 30,000, according to the report.

The study projects that, by 2025, the Canadian agricultural workforce could be short workers for 114,000 jobs in the agri-food sector. That sector covers not just primary agriculture but also such areas as aquaculture, food and beverage processing, food distribution and food service.

The agri-food sector is worth more than $100 billion a year, or more than six per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product. More than 2.3 million Canadians work in agri-food, accounting for one in eight jobs, or 12 per cent of employment in this country.

Despite its size, it’s a field that’s largely invisible to young people and their parents in urban Canada, says Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, CAHRC executive director in Ottawa.

A University of Guelph master’s graduate in industrial psychology, she says our increasingly urban population is several generations removed from the farm. “It’s not top of mind. The industry holds so many exciting careers, from physical work to really strong science, technology and management opportunities. There are lots of careers in the agri-food industry, and that’s not well-known.”

Rene Van Acker, OAC dean and U of G plant agriculture professor, says it’s that very scope that creates part of the difficulty for educators.

“It’s a challenging sector to promote because jobs are diverse,” he says. “It’s hard to market. It’s not like promoting engineering or medicine or law. It’s not just one discipline or skill.”

That challenge also presents an opportunity, he says. A 2011 report by OAC found that roughly three jobs exist for every grad; the college plans to repeat the study early this year.

“Even with increased enrolment, we expect to see a remaining large gap between supply and demand,” says Van Acker. “It is a good news story for students looking for opportunities.”

Wayne Caldwell, interim associate vice-president (research) for strategic partnerships at U of G, says potential careers run from business, marketing and trade to the science of agriculture — including veterinary science and animal husbandry — to his own profession as a planner in Huron County.

A professor in the School of Environmental Design and Rural Development, he has developed training materials for planners working in agriculture. “Most are from urban and non-farm communities, but many of these young people end up working in communities where agriculture is prevalent,” says Caldwell.

Looking to market opportunities to high school students, OAC established a liaison program in 2010. Since then, enrolment in college programs has increased by more than 50 per cent, particularly in the bachelor of science (agriculture) program, and the bachelor of commerce in food and agricultural business. Overall, OAC enrolment stands at about 2,800 undergrads, 750 associate diploma students and 800 graduate students.

Lindsay Stallman grew up on a horse farm near Brantford, Ont., and had other relatives in cash crop or livestock farming. “I decided to disown it as a young teenager,” says Stallman, who studied arts and business at university. “I was very misinformed about what I could do. A lot of jobs that exist in agriculture and food exist behind the curtain.”

Now working as an OAC liaison officer, she has a different view. “You can be a producer and have a fantastic job, but you can also do a thousand other things and never set foot on a farm or drive a tractor.”

For Chloe Van Acker, the route to agri-food studies started closer to her Guelph home with her dad, the college dean.

“I wanted something that combined chemistry and culinary arts, but I didn’t want to be a chef and I didn’t want just chemistry,” she says.

Having completed her third year in food science, she’s working on a yearlong co-op research placement with a Toronto-area food ingredient manufacturer. She figures her prospects are good for landing a permanent research and development position in the field after she graduates in 2018.

Speaking of the food science sector, she says, “it’s not a program that people think of. The program is growing but not at the same rate as the industry is growing.”

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