Aging off the Farm: Attracting youth to the ag sector a huge challenge

By Tim Kalinowski


About 48 per cent of Alberta farm operations and agro-businesses have said they could not meet all their farm labour needs in 2019, a higher percentage than any other province in Canada, says Debra Hauer, manager of agro-labour information with the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, and that is only the tip of the iceberg.

“Alberta in 2018 had 2,800 jobs that were left unfilled, and it cost the industry in Alberta $821 million in lost sales,” she says. “That is the largest amount of any province. We are looking at 40 per cent of the agricultural workforce in Alberta retiring in the next 10 years.”

Hauer says Alberta’s farm labour problems are similar in some respects to those in Saskatchewan or Manitoba. Specifically, an aging farm population in desperate need of new blood to come into the industry.

“We’re all getting older,” she says, “and it’s the demographic changes that are hitting the country where babyboomers will be retiring in the next 10 years. It hits agriculture more severely because it happens in rural areas. In that sense, there are fewer and fewer young people in rural areas, and fewer people in general.

“Traditionally people who have worked in agriculture have come from farming communities or the surrounding small towns, and there are fewer young people in those areas.”

However, Alberta does have one advantage over those other Prairie provinces in that respect, she says.

“Certainly Manitoba and Saskatchewan would have more of a problem than Alberta,” she explains. “Alberta has a larger proportion of young people, and that’s not expected to decrease in five or 10 years time. So Alberta has a very strong and stable population of young people; that’s an advantage.

“But how do you entice them to go into agriculture? That is the question, and there is a big issue that way where people don’t think of agriculture as being a career for them.”

She says they are two areas where Alberta agriculture could improve to help entice those young people. One is on the perception side of things. Agriculture is perceived to be low-paying, unskilled labour by many young people.

“High tech is something young people are interested in, but they do not realize that the industry of agriculture is becoming more and more that way,” she says. “I think there is a job to be done to encourage young people to work in agriculture, and I think there can be a positive spin on the work that’s being done.”

The perception of lower wages is also an inhibitor, even though it is not usually substantiated in fact, says Hauer. Location might be an even bigger problem, she adds.

“In Alberta, agriculture jobs are not low-paying, and our research indicates the biggest concern is about the rural location moreso than the wages. I would maintain also communities have a role to play to help there— that would be towns and counties that would promote the benefits of a rural lifestyle.

“People will want to know what their spouse would be able to do,” she explains. “Where their kids would go to school. What community activities you will be a part of. Often town websites are focused more on their ratepayers, taxes, graders and that sort of thing, instead of what are the benefits of living in our community.”

The second area where Alberta farmers can improve, she says, is by changing their expectations of what makes for a viable farm employee.

“I would say farmers are a little bit stuck in the past with what they are expecting,” Hauer confirms. “Because when farmers are looking to make some money to turn a profit and grow a business, they are looking to keep costs reasonable.

“They are looking for people who already have experience with the job and farming community, and already have experience working with animals or know how to drive the tractor or combine.

“They are looking for people who are already trained in the job, and, up until recently, they have been able to find those people within the farming communities and with their neighbours and friends. I think it has been frustrating for people to feel those people are no longer there.”

Foreign workers and immigrant communities might be one way to bridge that gap, but farmers should also consider hiring those with the right attitude rather than just the right skill-set when they are seeking employees, she says.

“Farmers will have to look at how to find people with the right attitude and consider training them,” Hauer confirms. “And looking at people of different backgrounds; so looking at people who may have some other limitations to employment, helping them along and providing accommodations.”

Hauer says self-awareness is another characteristic which is becoming a necessity when attempting to attract and keep quality employees.

“Farm employers should be thinking about how to be the best employer they should be,” she says. “It is a lot easier to work at keeping the people you have rather than finding new people all the time.

“Good human resource management practices are going to be increasingly important.

“We had an employee survey we’ve done,” she adds as an example, “and what we have found is there tend to be two types of workers.

“There is the one type who are people who love the job and want to stay, and have no intention of leaving— so that’s a good fit.

“The second type of employee is people who are not connected to the industry, or the employer, or the work.

“They are already thinking about what they’re going to be doing next while they are working there.

“The trick is to find the people who are the first type and try to keep them.”