The Canadian agriculture sector has proven to be highly resilient under the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Canada supports a stable food production system despite the initial concerns related to panic buying. These pressures have highlighted labour gaps, but have also accelerated an evolution of careers and skills in the agriculture sector that must be filled to maintain stability.

Finding and keeping qualified labour has been – and continues to be – a challenge for Canadian farmers. This vulnerability was clearly exacerbated by the pandemic. In a regular year, migrant workers are expected to fill 45,000 jobs on Canadian farms from coast to coast. Yet, vulnerabilities are not limited to the primary production level. Over half of food companies and 67% of agri-businesses report difficulty in finding recruits. These statistics reflect a call to action for qualified workers in the entire agri-food sector from production to distribution and retail.

The Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) works to address human resource issues in the sector, and the pre-existing labour shortage is one of those issues. The CAHRC’s Labour Forecast Report for 2025 indicated Canada’s agriculture sector was unable to fill 26,400 jobs in 2014, contributing to production delays and loss in sales. According to the report, this labour gap exists because of a lack of qualified workers.

Through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership, the Governments of Canada and Ontario have provided funding for Canadian organizations to gather labour market research and resources to grow and stabilize the sector. The CAHRC started a two-year project with the goal to help the agriculture and food system by preparing Canadians with the skills needed to work in this sector. The result of this project: a common framework that describes the agricultural and food labour market to help job seekers and employers understand where jobs are and what skills are needed in those jobs.

This government funding has also supported the establishment of a resource and training program, introduced by the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), called Feeding Your Future. This project connects farm and food business owners with qualified job seekers through job matching, virtual career fairs and informative webinars. To ensure that employees are qualified, online training opportunities provide a basic understanding of on-farm and farm-related activities through interactive videos and e-learning modules. With these training resources, individuals earn an academic certificate developed in partnership with the University of Guelph Ridgetown campus.

While specific agriculture-related knowledge is important, a 2018 report from RBC Future Launch outlined the coming skills revolution for young Canadians. This Humans Wanted report identifies that soft skills will be a requirement in new careers. Skills such as active listening, critical thinking and confident speaking are highly applicable to any job. New entrants to the workforce must develop transferable skills to adapt to new positions that may evolve over time rather than being qualified to fill one specific role.

While all workers involved in producing or selling food were deemed necessary at the outset of the pandemic, the sector has also had to adopt necessary sophisticated advancements on and off the farm. New positions are constantly being created, coinciding with the rapid development of technology and with this evolution, new skills are also needed.

The need for diverse skill sets involves recruiting diverse individuals to join this sector. The agriculture sector is intimidating to enter with an overwhelming array of opportunities. Jolene MacEachern, the Industry Liaison for Dalhousie University Agricultural Campus, suggests any interest can be applied to agriculture and can essentially guarantee a job. She shares that “An interest in science, law, business, history, policy, animals, public relations, environment, technology or mechanics can easily translate into a career in agriculture.”

The impression that without a background in agriculture, it is difficult to be successful in this industry does not hold true. Businesses and institutions within the agriculture sector are encouraging those with no rural background to consider the options.

Dean of the Ontario Agricultural College (OAC) at the University of Guelph, Rene Van Acker, supports MacEachern’s statement by adding that the current job market requires the application of all interests, skills and backgrounds together. “We’re always hoping individuals without a background in agriculture will look at agriculture-related programs because this industry is underserved,” says Van Acker. “Once people get over the fear and intimidation of needing to know everything, they can find their own pathway to success.”

The 2015 Agribusiness Report published by AgCareers.com shares that there appears to be a steady growth in North American agricultural careers. AgCareers.com is a job board that spans North America, providing global talent solutions in agriculture and food. This company saw a 26% increase of job postings with 16,680 more positions in 2015 alone.

During this global economic crisis, over three million Canadians lost their jobs and the unemployment rate rose to 13.1%. Fortunately, the agriculture sector has shown great resilience. The world must eat and, therefore, jobs in agriculture will always exist and always be prioritized. Agriculture is unique among other global sectors as it is not a boom and bust industry. Over the past decade, there has been a constant growth in jobs and opportunities as the population grows. Embracing the need for new technologies and new solutions to face environmental challenges leads to new opportunities. The current global crisis is an opportunity to welcome people with diverse skill sets to drive innovation and change within the agriculture industry.

Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.

Michelle deNijs

Michelle deNijs

Michelle deNijs earned her degree in International Development from the University of Guelph in 2020. She also chose to specialize in agriculture to complement her passion in developing a strong global food system. Michelle currently works for the Ontario Federation of Agriculture as a Communications Specialist and looks forward to future opportunities of public engagement to support growth of the Canadian agriculture sector.

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