Job rebound sluggish in Canada’s agri-food sector

Sylvain CharleboisStatistics Canada’s recent September job market data is reassuring, overall. But for the agri-food sector, the reality is quite different.

Overall, employment in the country increased in September, creating 378,000 jobs, the majority of which were full-time. This increase in September brought total employment to 720,000, shy of the level we had before the pandemic.

Obviously, children being back to school has helped bring some normalcy to our lives. For the economy, that’s very encouraging.

The agricultural sector, however, is hiring far fewer people than at this time last year. There are 17,000 fewer jobs than in September 2019.

Undoubtedly, agri-food recruitment has been particularly difficult, given the challenges getting foreign workers. But with public investment discussions between the federal government and the provinces on more controlled-environment agriculture projects, seeing fewer jobs in the sector is to be expected.

Our collective enthusiasm for greater food autonomy across the country has many thinking differently about food security.

Technology-driven models in agriculture will control costs and, of course, limit the influence of the weather. As such, it will help consumers who are fleeing highly volatile prices, especially in produce.

Right now, it’s typical to see prices for certain vegetables and fruits rise by 25 per cent in a single month. The cauliflower incident a few years ago was exactly that.

With more domestic high-tech production, this is less likely to happen. And with 48 per cent of the population concerned about food shortages, this would matter.

Other food sectors are also suffering.

Although the hotel and restaurant industry has reached the one-million-employee mark again, this sector still employs 15.2 per cent fewer people than at this time last year. This is the largest drop among all sectors.

With the second wave of the pandemic affecting several major regions, it’s expected that the number of employees for these sectors will fall below one million again in October.

But the resilience of hoteliers and restaurateurs is nothing short of impressive. Given the several blows the sector has had to endure, 15.2 per cent isn’t much.

But the biggest problem is in food processing. Across the country, companies are struggling to recruit. Estimates provided by Food and Beverage Canada and by the Conseil de la Transformation Alimentaire du Québec suggest that almost 28,000 jobs in food processing remain vacant in Canada. That’s about 10 per cent of all positions available in the entire sector.

The sector’s labour shortage is worse than it was before the pandemic, even with a higher unemployment rate.

Under-staffing forces many employers to reduce production and cut working hours. Some factories have had to close production lines. This explains, in part, the few barren shelves in some supermarkets and retail stores.

Canada won’t experience a food shortage any time soon but our processing sector needs help, and fast.

The average hourly wage in the sector is about $21 to $23, well above the minimum wage across the country. Working conditions, however, aren’t ideal. And during the first wave of COVID-19, several food processing and distribution plants were put to the test.

Media coverage was overwhelming, focusing on closures and outbreaks within facilities, making the sector look much less attractive. The Cargill beef plant in High River, Alta., experienced the largest outbreak in the country thus far. For recruitment, it was a public relations nightmare.

In addition, with the end of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program and the introduction of the enhanced employment insurance program, recruitment appears to be even more challenging for the sector. Hundreds of work-ready Canadians are opting to stay at home until the weeks of program eligibility run out.

An anemic food manufacturing sector may mean that some products will be out of stock from time to time, especially at the meat counter. And the situation could get worse.

Raising wages to make the sector more attractive is one option. With industry going it alone, that could add to the pressure that retail prices are under, at the risk of raising the price of food.

A timely program would give Canadians incentives to work in the sector. Perhaps Canadians wanting to work in the sector could get compensated while retaining a portion of their employment insurance for a while in a hybrid program of sorts.

Despite the federal government’s good intentions to keep people at home and safe, CERB and now the new employment insurance program haven’t helped food manufacturing.

Food manufacturing is like no other sector. The labour shortage it’s experiencing could become a food security nightmare.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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