Labour force maldevelopment

All parts of the current food supply chain are facing labour-related difficulties. In general, the challenges are the number of positions available and their quality, the number of people available to fill many of them, and their skill sets.

One job in eight in Canada is connected to the food system, about 2.2 million food system workers (AAFC, 2015) and this figure does not include all the positions associated with transportation, waste management, energy, plastics and other bio-products that primarily revolve around moving and processing crops and animals.  Almost three-quarters of these positions are in agricultural inputs, food service and retail/wholesale, with only 27% in food production and processing (Labour Task Force, 2013). Employment over the next decade is projected to decline (agriculture and fisheries) remain flat (food and beverage manufacturing), or rise slightly (retail and food service). “The sector is currently competing for talent with other industries that are able to afford higher wage rates, employ their personnel in urban, high density regions, offer full-time employment options, and involve less physically demanding working conditions” (Labour Task Force, 2013, p. 29).  Many rural businesses are competing with the attractions of urban environments.

In the following sections, some of these themes are reviewed in more detail for parts of the food system.


Replacing current farmers is a huge area of potential employment, but it’s not a traditional retirement situation because of the huge cost barriers to entry.  The 2011 Census of Agriculture concluded that almost half of farmers are 55+, with an average age of 54 (Parliament of Canada, 2011). The number of young farmers continues to decline, with the percentage of farm operators under age 35 down nearly 60 % since 1991 (8.2% in 2011 versus 19.9% in 1991) (Cheater, 2012). Commenting on the situation in Ontario, Seccombe (2007) concluded,

The children of Ontario’s farmers are evidently looking elsewhere for their career choices. While retaining their inheritance rights, most decline to take over the management of the family farm as their parents approach retirement. Little wonder, given the depression of net farm incomes......There are 74,000 farms in Canada currently operated by farmers who are expected to retire over the next fifteen years. This is one-third of the country’s farmers, transferring almost half of Canada’s farm assets. Three quarters of these farms do not currently have an operator of a younger generation to take over the farm and run it as a business. Less than one-fifth have a written succession plan. While the financial resources needed to enter farming have increased, the ability to pay for the opportunity from farm income has declined.

Despite this reality, “while attracting new entrants to farming has been identified as a near crisis situation, there is a leadership gap in addressing the challenge” (Scholz, 2009).

Farm workers

On many farms, the family provides the labour, while others hire workers. Nine percent of farmers in 2013 named labour shortages as the single most important issue facing Canadian agriculture, a rapid rise from 1% in 2011 (AAFC, 2013).  Over half of farm workers are seasonal (Labour Task Force, 2013). A 2009 CAHRC survey reported that on smaller farms, 27% of the demand for seasonal farm positions remained unfilled, and 20% on larger farms. Vacancies for permanent positions were lower, at around 9-10% across farm sizes (CAHRC, 2009; 2011; 2012). Only nine percent of farmers have a written HR plan to hire and retain workers (AAFC, 2012). The most difficult positions to fill were reported to be general farm workers, machinery mechanics and operators, and supervisors and managers (CAHRC, 2012).

Since the mid - 1960s, governments have permitted temporary farm workers to fill some vacancies.  At present, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) administered by Employment and Skills Development Canada (ESDC) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), has four streams: Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP), the Agricultural Stream, and the Streams for Lower-Skilled and Higher-Skilled Occupations for primary agricultural occupations and non-primary agricultural occupations[1].  About 80,000 food system temporary foreign workers were employed in 2012[2], almost half of them farm workers, representing over 20% of all farm employment (Burt, 2014).

These programs are highly controversial.  Critics point to a wide range of human rights abuses, unsafe work and living conditions, inequitable allocations of wages and benefits, and debilitating psychological treatment (Hennebry & Preibisch, 2010; Justicia for Migrant Workers, 2006; Preibisch, 2007;  UFCW, 2011; UFCW and Canadian Agricultural Workers Alliance, 2014).  In many cases, it appears that TFWs are employed to the detriment of local labour markets, rather than being a means to compensate for a lack of local labour as claimed by firms and program administrators (O’Neil, 2014).

Food processing

In a 2011 report,

… food and beverage processing firms reported that they face the biggest challenge in finding appropriate candidates for the following occupational categories: skilled workers and operators (32%), precision workers (27%); labourers (25%); supervisors (20%) and technicians/technologists (18%). Moreover, the processors expected these same occupations to continue to be difficult to fill over the next 5 years (Food Processing HR Council, 2011).

Food and labour are two of the biggest cost inputs (Sparling & Cheney, 2014). Consequently, there exists a major incentive to reduce labour costs and, in fact, wage rates are substantially lower than the average in the manufacturing sector (and declined through the late 90s and 2000s). There are downward pressures on processor revenue associated with retail concentration (Sparling & Cheney, 2014).  Overall employment in food processing has increased slightly during recent downturns, but automation and new technologies have created new skill and training needs, so there has been some shifting in the sector from general labourers to semi-skilled technicians.  Employers worry that the new automated systems will require skilled workers that will be difficult to find. At the same time, shifts out of direct manufacturing positions and into more non-manufacturing ones have occurred as automation has reduced the need for direct manufacturing jobs.  Overall, labour productivity has improved, even though food processing is generally low value-added relative to many other manufacturing areas (Sparling & Cheney, 2014).

Few people plan careers in the sector and food processing is often considered a stepping stone to higher paying work. Previously, many entry positions only required high school diplomas or less, but retraining is required for many.  The need for food safety training has expanded with the number and intensity of food scares and more demanding government regulations, but many firms limit training for fear of poaching.

Companies with higher rates of turnover generally offer non-competitive wage rates, unfulfilling social and cultural environments, limited feelings of job security, and no training or employee track programs. High turnover firms tend to hire a large number of New Canadians and possess few long-term employees (5 years or more tenure). (Sparling & Cheney, 2014, p. 17).

New Canadians may not have the same employment expectations as longer term residents, but may come with attendant challenges around culture/language. Seasonal food processing often relies on temp agencies to fill positions (National Seafood Sector Council, 2005).

At least 2,000 temporary foreign workers were employed in food manufacturing in 2012, all in skilled and semi-skilled trades, and the number could be higher if including carpenters, machinists and equipment operators who may be working in the food industry[3].

Food service

Food service work is viewed primarily as something one does while waiting to establish in another field. The hospitality sector, including food service, suffers from: labour shortages, a poor image of work quality, high turnover, poor training programs, and low skill levels (Verma, 2012). Because of changes in the industry, many establishments no longer have prestige positions, for example, trained chefs.

However, some larger and established firms may rely on the ladder approach, hiring at entry level and building employee skills so they can advance. Some have significant training programmes to facilitate this approach. All this seems to contribute to lower turnover rates compared to industry averages. Industry-wide training facilities and housing exist for some hospitality workers. A significant number of unionized workers in the sector contribute to sector/union collaborations (Verma, 2012). Some 38000 TFWs worked in food service in 2012, most in kitchens[4].

Food retail

Food retail faces challenges similar to food service and 28% of the workforce does not have post-secondary education (Verma, 2012). The biggest challenge, however, is recruiting and retaining employees (Androich, 2011). The sector does provide a range of high and low skilled positions and claims it prefers to hire from within, that an employee can move from grocery clerk to head office (Parulekar, 2012).  Walmart has stated that internal training is necessary to deal with growing supply chain and merchandising complexity in the sector (Verma, 2012). Significant upskilling investments are consequently required. The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) runs training programs with some company contributions.


[1] See Labour Force Task Force (2013) for comparison of program features.

[2] Calculated from

[3] Calculated from

[4] Calculated from