The pandemic left many employers looking for qualified staff, including Van Raay Paskal Farms (VRP). At any given time VRP has roughly 10 vacancies within it’s facilities where they care for about 180,000 head of cattle, plus run a farming and irrigation sector.
“We have around 170 employees, we like to stay around 180 to 185 when we are this full,” said VRP human resources manager Jolayne Farn.
She added recruiting and retaining employees in the agriculture sector has become more challenging in recent years. She fears it’s only going to get worse as the job market gets more competitive.
“The CERB payments didn’t help any employer out there and trying to recruit the past two years is very difficult when you don’t have the domestic labour that should be there.”
Farn added there are a number of factors in the struggle for recruiting people to the industry, one being a lack of knowledge and education about the critical role agriculture plays in feeding the world.
“I think it starts with the school curriculum. There is not agriculture in our school curriculum and these students are not learning about the importance of agriculture.
“These are not jobs, they are careers.”
Farn said VRP has implemented a number of initiatives to both draw in workers and emphasize safety.
“People want to feel safe and we want them to go home safe at the end of the day,” she said.
VRP is doing what it can to be competitive and show employees that a job in agriculture is more than a short term experience, but rather a chance at a career.
Some incentives offered are signing bonuses, referral benefits, leadership training, an inhouse counsellor to support mental health, and more flexible working hours. However, Farn said giving people proper knowledge is key.
“People want to learn, people want to grow, it’s just something that’s natural for everybody, so keeping them engaged is really important here,” she said.
“The more engagement you get and the value you feel you bring, the more valuable you are.”
Dr. Joyce Van Donkersgoed is a veterinarian who specialized in feedlot cattle for years. She is working on a training program targeted to feedlot employees that could help with this shortage.
Her project is though the Alberta Cattle Feeders Association and is funded by Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR). She said she pitched an easy-to-use online learning model for new and existing employees.
“Building some training tools that feedlot producers could use whenever they want, they could go on the cattle feeders website and there would be videos and they could pick different topics and not only train new staff but also re-train existing staff,” Van Donkersgoed said.
She added that in her experience working with feedlot operators to train new employees, she saw common themes of employees leaving after a short time because they weren’t comfortable in their new job. The videos will help those with no former farm or large animal experience, or are hired through the temporary foreign worker program and need to learn Canadian protocols.
“They have a massive learning curve so we need tools to be able to train all different kinds of workers that might apply for the job, and if you don’t provide training they don’t stay,” said Van Donkersgoed.
She added the training videos will also be beneficial to veterinarians who work with feedlots to get the animals the best and most timely treatment.
RDAR’s investment in the project is $52,555. Van Donkersgoed is aiming to have the videos finished by the end of this year, with some rolling out this summer.
Farn said any added training tools available will help in retaining staff, but recruiting will continue to be a challenge. Her hope is that the federal government will do more to encourage people who didn’t grow up in the agriculture industry to apply for jobs before filing for unemployment subsidies.
“I think the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and the Employment Insurance Program should talk and be like, ‘there’s all these jobs, why should this person be on unemployment when there is all these jobs happening?'” added Farn.
VRP relies on the Temporary Foreign Worker Program to fill its staffing void, however getting approval to hire out of country can take time, which poses additional challenges for timely jobs like seeding and harvest.
“We have 14 people from Mexico arriving to help on the farm and to help in the feedlot because we can not hire domestic workforce,” said Farn.
She encourages anyone looking for work to consider the agriculture sector, adding there is a host of different job opportunities ranging from mechanics and office staff to feed truck drivers at different operations throughout the province.