The agriculture sector needs to recruit workers but marketing to a new generation will require innovative thinking.
The industry not only needs to diversify the sectors it pulls talent from, it also has to update the backstory of agriculture to be more inviting to those who’ve not grown up on the farm.
“This industry has shaped our history as a nation,” said Gwen Paddock, RBC’s vice-president, Agriculture. “It also forms an important part of our modern day story, and it will continue to be critical to our country’s growth and prosperity.”
Paddock led a Royal Agricultural Virtual Experience panel discussion Nov. 12 on the skills needed to transform agriculture over the coming decade.
“Farmer 4.0 will be data obsessed, innovative, they’ll change how they produce, they’ll be more diverse and possess a higher range of skills than we’ve ever seen,” said Paddock.
Farmer 4.0: How the Coming Skills Revolution Can Transform Agriculture is an RBC report released in August 2019, which projected Canada would be short 123,000 agricultural workers by 2030.
The four-month-long study noted leadership, critical thinking and management skills will be as important as the ability to develop technological skills to tool robots and write code.
A third and equally important aspect includes specialists in genetics, blockchain and artificial intelligence.
Panelist Cox Wensink manages the family’s Hoenhorst Farms Ltd, a two-barn 460-cow milking operation that went robotic 12 years ago.
“There’s a huge shortage of skilled trades people in agriculture,” she said. “A farm like ours relies on highly skilled trades people like contractors, mechanics, technicians plumbers, electricians, welders and hoof trimmers.”
Wensink says without skilled trades people farms would have a tough time. However, there are few young people who possess the needed skills.
“While technology in agriculture allows us to continuously improve and to help make our operations more efficient,” said Wensink, “the fact that we work with living animals makes it very difficult to fully automate a dairy farm.”
Future farm skills aren’t just technical
Ian Potter, president and CEO of the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre, agrees agriculture requires a variety of skill sets including those found in non-traditional agriculture sectors such as engineering, science and business.
Potter said the value of soft skills, such as a team-player attitude, adaptability and a strong work ethic, are often overlooked in the industry, whereas he considers them a requirement.
An understanding of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence are tools in the agricultural toolbox of the future, but that alone won’t provide the solutions needed, he said.
“All these traditional hands-on technical social skills will always be required,” he said. “And those skills should be taken out of the toolbox and used where and when they’re needed.”
Wensink said from a management point of view, the most important skills to possess today are the ability to run your farm like a business and understand the financial standing of that business.
Rene Van Acker, dean at the University of Guelph agriculture college, said their programs are cutting edge but when employers are asked what they need and are looking for they also point out the need for soft skills.
“We are very dedicated to experiential learning,” said Van Acker. “I think it’s critical for our University and College programs to be current and helpful to students in terms of their transition into the working world and what’s needed.”
Students showed a preference for programs with co-op options and because of that UofG core undergraduate diploma programs will all have that option by the end of next year. The agricultural students also have a problem solving skills development course where they work in teams to solve real-world live cases, he said.
“It’s all contextual, in terms of agricultural problems,” said Van Acker. “But the intention of the course is skills development. The other (aspect) is social events and networking.”
Van Acker said aggies are well known for socializing, but it’s a vital skill that is sometimes discounted.
Helping agriculture compete for talent
Paddock said with the promise of technology and automation to open up agriculture to non-traditional sources of talent, it still begs the question: how will tech-heavy farming compete with other sectors for the same talent pool?
Van Acker acknowledged the biggest challenge is recruitment into the sector and how to sell the opportunity to the next generation whose interests lie in making a difference in the world.
“How do we train the next generation of workers if we can’t recruit them into programs?” he said. “That’s our biggest challenge.”
Potter said a secondary challenge is how to cover necessary skills at the university level when there’s not enough teaching time to emphasize experiential learning and soft skills.
For Van Acker, the key is to approach potential agricultural and agri-food students and employees differently by understanding what motivates them and relate it to their impact and potential to create change and innovation within the sector.
The need to make a difference
Van Acker suggested graduates from highly technical and sophisticated programs aren’t interested in labourer-style careers but rather ones that create solutions that will have an impact on the world.
“I think a comparative advantage that agricultural and the agri-food sector has over maybe other sectors, is that there is so much opportunity to make a difference in the world,“ he said. “If you want to be part of the solution to those (world) challenges you would be best served being in the agriculture and the food sector.
“The sector is about food and health and care for our environment and I think that is a way to draw in who we need.”
Potter said Canadians often fail to capitalize on the ideas generated, instead shelving or selling their ideas and innovation to someone else only to purchase them back again.
“I’d love to see better Canadian content, more Canadian content,” he said. “And a better supply chain to actually developing that Canadian content. We have one of the best high quality manufacturing sectors in the world.
“We are a nation of small to medium enterprises,” said Potter. “I’m sure there are companies out there that would relish the opportunity to understand and grow their market for their products in agriculture and horticulture specifically.”
Paddock pointed to other sectors where agricultural-specific careers could be developed such as financial, human resources, and information technology advisors to provide critical information, expertise and insight, without necessarily being part of hands-on farming.
“There’s so many aspects of agriculture that can lead to a great career,” said Wensink. “And I believe the key is to show the diversity and try to remove the traditional stereotypes.”