A skills revolution

RBC REPORT SHOWCASES AGRICULTURE’S POTENTIAL

NO MATTER HOW TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED THE FARM IS, THERE STILL NEEDS TO BE A LABOUR FORCE.

A REPORT RECENTLY published by the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) emphasizes the potential for the Canadian agriculture industry to be an economic powerhouse — but only if it pushes the envelope on innovation and skills training, and recruits more young people and immigrants.

In fact, the report says, “with the right mix of skills, capital, and technology, agriculture could add $11 billion to Canada’s GDP by 2030.” That would bring it to $51 billion, bigger than the auto assembly and aeronautics sectors combined.

The report is called “Farmer 4.0 — how the coming skills revolution can transform agriculture” and it is part of the bank’s “Humans Wanted” campaign to bring attention to the need to prepare Canadian youth for the workplaces of the future.

“There are two dimensions to the skills shift that are worth noting,” says Andrew Schrumm, senior manager of research at RBC. “On the one hand autonomous machines have meant that producers save time that they can use elsewhere, and the other is that the type of worker being hired is different — they’re twenty-something computer programmers making sure the machines run smoothly.”

Schrumm says that the grains and oilseeds sector spends about four times as much on machinery versus labour and that there has been a major transformation already, compared to other sectors such as horticulture.

“We found that 90 per cent of grain producers are using GPS-enabled tractors and 60 per cent are using GIS-guided machines,” he says.

THE PEOPLE PROBLEM

No matter how technologically advanced the farm is, there still needs to be a labour force, and a lack of workers is costing the industry dearly.

Debra Hauer says that, according to research conducted late last year, labour shortages in grains and oilseeds cost the national industry $594 million or 2.6 per cent of sales. Hauer is the manager of Agri-Labour Market Information for the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), which provided much of the raw data that RBC used for its report.

The council surveyed 1,316 producers from all agriculture, with a high percentage of participation from Ontario. Job vacancies in grains and oilseeds amounted to 2,000, but because it is highly productive, each missing body represents $600,000 in lost sales.

“More is being produced with fewer people in the sector — it’s a productivity star,” she says, adding that while agriculture is a leading sector in the economy, grains and oilseeds lead the agriculture industry.

CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON

Retirement will be a big barrier to overcome in the future. CAHRC predicts that more than one in three agricultural workers in Ontario will retire over the next 10 years. The RBC report says that one in four Canadian farmers will be over the age of 65 by 2025, and that 110,000 will retire.

Getting foreign workers to fill the gaps isn’t an option since programs such as the Seasonal Agriculture Worker Program (SAWP) and the agricultural stream of the Temporary Foreign Worker Program aren’t available to grains and oilseeds producers. While there is a program called International Experience Canada that allows 1,000 students to come to this country, they only stay for a growing season and return to their home countries.

All of this means that attracting new workers, and, as Hauer says, ‘looking outside the tent’ of agriculture to recruit talent from different fields of study is a must.

“Enrollment is up in agricultural programs across Canada, but we need more people from urban areas and immigrants to take work-integrated learning experiences in colleges,” she says, citing things such as co-op terms and internships. This will provide hands-on experience and increase the pool of potential workers for farms.

MOVING FORWARD

The RBC report says that, in order to take advantage of the opportunities that agriculture presents, farmers will need to be more skilled in digital expertise, leadership and critical thinking in order to manage larger and more complex operations.

An estimated 25,000 more skilled workers will be needed by 2030 and they will have to have software knowledge, business smarts, and be able to communicate effectively. As many as 18,000 more specialists will be needed with knowledge in such fields as genetics, blockchain, and artificial intelligence.

The report references advances in agricultural education and innovation in the Netherlands, Norway, California, Australia, and Israel and calls for a Canadian national skills strategy to push forward the agenda.

Hauer says that CAHRC is working with provincial governments to develop a list of the skills that will be needed and a common language about what exactly they mean by labour shortages and skills gaps. It also participates in the agricultural Labour Task Force to identify opportunities.

Hauer is optimistic about the future, especially with amplified voices like RBC pointing to the opportunities that could be realized in Canadian agriculture, but strikes a note of caution.

“We have to have an appealing message for people outside the sector,” she says. •

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