Help hard to find for many in ag. industry

By Tim Kalinowski, Staff Writer


When it comes to agriculture finding and keeping good employees is an extremely difficult challenge. There are various reasons for this. Competition from higher paying industries, a general shortage of workers with on-the-farm experience and increasingly strict and expensive government labour regulations. If you have good long-term employees you do whatever you can to keep them. Otherwise you’ve got to get creative. Anja Bertens of Bertens Holsteins Ltd. has 500 cows which need milking on a daily basis. She has a larger family which helps give her some stability on the labour front, but she still has to keep six to eight full time employees at any given time. She also has to get extra help from part-timers whenever she can. To fill her full time needs Bertens has had to rely increasingly on the Temporary Foreign Workers program’s agricultural stream. “It’s hard to find skilled people for the dairy industry,” explains Bertens. “Because it is livestock and it is specified for dairy, in my eyes that makes it harder because there is not a lot of schooling for the dairy industry. There is not many kids in Alberta who do dairy work and there is not a lot of dairies in Alberta either. You put advertisements out for help. You hire (local) people but they don’t come. So we are looking more and more at Immigration Care (agency) to help us. We now have four Canadian workers and four Filipinos.” Bertens says it goes beyond simple dollars and cents when trying to figure out who to hire for her farm. “Training is hard for dairy because it is so specified. We start at three thirty in the morning, and there are not many people who want to do that anymore. You always have to have somebody in the background who can step in. My kids are great for that, but next year two of them are going to be going away for school and it will become that much harder. With livestock it is not something you can switch off or slow down.” Bertens has noticed some improvements in the processing time to bring in Temporary Foreign Workers, but the government is increasingly scrutinizing other aspects of her business to make sure she is doing all she can to find help in Canada first. “It’s so time-consuming,” says a clearly frustrated Bertens. “I don’t know how it works for other industries, but for us we have our (TFWs) long-term. We have them for two years and you can’t put everybody in one house. You have to have good training. You have to try to make them feel at home. It’s all these things you have to think about, and that is my nightmare.” As for her part time needs, Bertens is fortunate to farm near Olds College. She also sponsors student interns from the Netherlands, (her family’s native land), to come on short stints on a semi-regular basis. “We have all these students going to (Olds) school who grew up on the farm. So they work after school and on Saturdays; we are so lucky to have them to help out. And we have always had students come from the Netherlands. They do internships. That is one thing I would like to see here in Alberta; more farm co-op programs. When they come here, they come for ten weeks,” says Bertens. Bertens does not see any solution to her labour problems other than to deal with situations as they arise. “It’s an ongoing challenge. We do have some amazing staff and we are very thankful because without them we can’t operate,” says Bertens. Alan Dooley is a labour recruitment specialist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. He says stories like Anja Bertens’ are quite common in many sectors of the agriculture industry. “Historically, it’s at least partially been a question of alternatives and opportunities in other industries that pay more,” explains Dooley. “The industry has its challenges that way. It tends to be that the commodities we sell, generally speaking, tend to be sold in world markets. That makes it difficult to say I will pay another two or three dollars an hour because you’ve got to be able to get your costs out of the other end in terms of your markets. It also tends to be hard work, and we tell our kids to go get an engineering degree or become a lawyer and, by gum, they listen to us.” Dooley says the Temporary Foreign Workers program, while a godsend to many producers, also has its share of issues. “If you are looking at something that’s not seasonal like hog producers or dairy that need help all year round, you start running into other issues like time. Workers are only allowed two years generally, but with agriculture you can extend that another two years. That’s four years, but it’s still not a permanent position unless they can then get nominated under the Immigrant Nominee program. So often you are starting over every couple years.” Outside of hiring and keeping dedicated farm workers in Alberta, or bringing in Temporary Foreign Workers, Dooley says farmers have a few options. “So next we start looking at underemployed groups like youth,” explains Dooley. “The StatsCanada report which came out Feb. 5 says it seems to be stuck at about 13 per cent for the under 24 demographic. So there is that. And farmers, depending on the nature of the work, will also hire their retired or semi-retired neighbours for operating the combine or truck in some cases. There are also certain ethnic groups that may or may not be underemployed; that may be another area where farmers can look at.” Dooley says one silver lining in the dark cloud that is the Alberta economy is farmers and agriculture-related businesses are finding it easier to hire at the moment, but workers are still not exactly “flocking” to the industry. Dooley says now is the time to make a long-term employment plan, while you have a little space to breathe. “Farmers don’t have HR departments, and it’s a big challenge to figure out who to hire and what to pay and how to do some of these retention plans and policies to make these workers want to stay. We do offer retention programs to help with that a little at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. They can help producers figure out where they are strong and where they are weak.” Dooley says its also important for farmers to talk to their employees and see how things stand from the other side. “Talk to the workers you have and get a sense of why they stay,” says Dooley. “Sell all the good things about your farm, and find out why people like working for you. All you need is a few good people, but you need to understand why your workers are here and why they leave. And try to resolve those things before it gets to be crisis time.”