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A prairie labour shortage

Yorkton, like other parts of Saskatchewan, is dealing with a real labour shortage.
YORKTON — The sign posted on the window of the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in Yorkton gets right to the point. In capital letters, it says: “We’re Hiring. KFC needs you.”

KFC is one of dozens of Yorkton businesses desperate for workers.

In early November, Canadian Tire, Starbucks, SaskTel, The Brick, Walmart, Mary Browns, Omega Auto Parts, Parkland College and many others had similar signs on their buildings or in their parking lots, telling locals about available jobs.

If job seekers haven’t noticed those signs, they can also look at — an employment website. In early November it had 213 postings for Yorkton — a city of about 18,000 people.

A few local businesses have given up looking for workers. The owners of an A&W on the southwest side of the city closed the business this year because they couldn’t staff the restaurant.

That’s not a shock, as fast-food restaurants in Canada have struggled for years to attract employees. What’s different now is that companies offering solid wages, benefits and good working conditions in Yorkton get fewer applicants for available jobs.

That includes agriculture and agri-food companies.

“Entry level people have become more difficult to find than in the past,” said Marilyn Britton, human resources manager with Grain Millers, which operates an oat mill in Yorkton.

Those jobs, in the warehouse or in sanitation, pay $23.10 per hour with an opportunity to advance at Grain Millers.

With attendance bonuses, someone working at the lowest pay grade at Grain Millers can earn more than $25 per hour.

The circumstances are similar at the local Co-op.

A manager at one Co-op location said they get responses to job postings, but when he calls or texts a potential employee about the job, the applicant doesn’t return the text.

Some young people in Yorkton aren’t willing to take an entry level job or starting wage, even at a unionized workplace like the Co-op, he said.

Many potential employees expect $25 an hour, weekends off and no washroom cleaning duties.

The local John Deere dealership still gets sufficient applicants for starting positions, like an administrative assistant. But potential workers sometimes insist on a premium wage for a basic job.

However, the Yorkton labour shortage goes further than the high expectations of 22-year-olds.

It’s also about economic growth.

Yorkton has hundreds of jobs in agriculture and agri-food. Richardson International and Louis Drefyus operate canola crushing plants just west of town. Harvest Meats employs more than 300 at its meat processing plant and many ag service companies have locations in Yorkton.

Many of those firms have expanded or have plans to expand. Richardson is doubling the size of its crush plant and the project will be completed in 2024.

In the last five years, Grain Millers has added 120 staff and doubled the capacity of its mill. It now employs about 225 people.

“We’re just growing… we just posted for eight new positions,” Britton said, while sitting in the board room of Grain Millers’ new office, located at the mill.

Most of the agri-food processors and ag companies in Yorkton can still fill their new positions and vacancies, thanks to a booming population of immigrants in the region.

Ten to 15 years ago, Yorkton was basically a white community. Now, more than 3,000 immigrants from the Philippines live in the city.

Some of the newcomers arrived more than a decade ago, taking jobs at farms and ag businesses in Saskatchewan. They progressed to better positions and encouraged friends and family to join them in the Yorkton region.

One example is Eduardo Castillo.

In 2009, he started working at a Saskatchewan hog farm and now owns a grocery store in Yorkton.

“Many Filipino people here are working in a factory, like Harvest Meats,” he said. “And lots and lots of people are working in nursing homes… (that’s) one of the biggest employers of Filipinos. Also restaurants.”

Castillo estimated that there are more than 5,000 Filipinos in Yorkton and the communities that surround the city.

The Filipino immigrants have been partially filling the labour void, but based on the number of advertised jobs in the region, the flow of new immigrants isn’t keeping up with demand.

“Our community needs an influx of young people and new people,” said Geoff Propp, vice-president and general manager of Harvest Meats. “If you’re looking at immigration numbers into Canada, they’re nowhere near where they need to be — to replace the aging workforce…. Because of border of closures (COVID), you can’t get into the country. That’s probably driving a lot of what we’re seeing — the shortage of workers.”

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is often blamed for removing millions of Canadians from the labour market. A large percentage needed the money because their workplace was closed, but many employers argue that others chose to stay home rather than take a job with an agricultural business.

A 2020 survey of farm operators found that 41 percent of producers could not recruit a sufficient number of workers last year.

“Seventy-one percent of employers (farmers) who reported labour shortages cited fewer Canadian applicants,” said the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) report.

A vegetable grower in Quebec summarized the frustrations of many farmers.

“We have received 80 names…. Of those 80 people, 25 showed up and stayed for more than 24 hours. All of the others basically did not want to work…. They did not want to work early in the morning or late at night and they did not want to work on weekends,” said Anne Verny in the CAHRC report.

The labour shortfall on Canadian farms and food processing was a problem before COVID and CERB. In 2019, Food Processing Skills Canada reported on the labour shortfall in meat processing:

  • As of 2017, meat processors employed about 58,000 workers.
  • About 55 percent of meat companies said they couldn’t find enough people for available jobs and 7,300 jobs went unfilled in 2016.
  • The meat sector has struggled with labour shortages for years. But the labour market in agriculture and agri-food has fundamentally changed, compared to 15 to 20 years ago.

Years ago, farm families would have three or four children, and two of those kids would eventually take jobs in the ag sector. That story is becoming a rarity.

“We don’t have any farm boys looking for work,” Britton said. “I don’t know why there aren’t any 17-year-old, farm (raised) students looking for work… right out of high school.”

The lack of farm kids affects a company like Grain Millers. Many of their new employees can’t tell a canola seed from an oat groat.

“We looked for grain receivers recently and there are very few applicants that can identify grains,” Britton said. “They don’t have any ag background.”

Fortunately, that sort of knowledge can be learned and many go on to become productive employees. But Grain Millers also needs people with specialized knowledge — like employees who understand the robotic equipment inside the mill.

Getting those folks to take a job in Yorkton is difficult.

“We can’t find a software engineer. We’ve had it posted for a year. They don’t want to come here, they are city people,” Britton said.

“We’re looking for senior accountants. Things like that. It’s hard to bring people to rural Saskatchewan…. And if they want to come, their spouse doesn’t.”

It’s also hard to recruit young people with zero work experience. This year Grain Millers struggled to hire a crop specialist.

“$60,000 a year wasn’t enough for a graduating student with an ag degree,” said Scott Shiels, grain procurement manager with Grain Millers.

“They’re not talking to you at $60,000. I know this because one (applicant) flat out turned me down at that price.”

Britton has heard a similar story about a company in rural Saskatchewan.

“They have a posting for an agronomist (and) I don’t believe they got any applicants from Canada.”

Harvest Meats employs about 300 people at its plant in Yorkton and about 80 of those employees are from the Philippines. A percentage of workers are also from Ukraine and the majority of employees are new arrivals in Canada.

About six months ago, job applications slowed to a trickle and Harvest Meats responded with an incentive plan, where employees received a gift card if they submitted a resumé of a friend or relative.

That initiative helped, but Propp hopes to increase production in 2022 and wants to add 20 employees. That could be challenging because the labour pool in Yorkton isn’t growing quickly enough to keep up with retirements, vacancies and economic growth.

Hiring a temporary foreign worker isn’t a great option for Harvest Meats because the process is long and torturous. It can take six to nine months to get government approval to hire a TFW and bring that person to Yorkton.

“Individual businesses, trying to sponsor one or two people to come in from the Philippines… that’s almost one person’s full-time job,” Propp said.

Still, Yorkton is better off than most towns and cities in rural Saskatchewan. The population of immigrants is expanding and the newcomers from the Philippines are eager to work.

Many have two jobs, including a grain receiver who works at Grain Millers.

“He kept the job he had before he came here,” Shiels said. “He works nights, evenings (at the other job).”

Grain Millers is planning to further expand its Yorkton mill and that will require more employees. Britton isn’t worried about finding people, but it could require more effort.

“I feel there is an untapped labour pool…. our First Nations,” she said.

“I think that would be our next recruitment (focus).”

Right now, Grain Millers employs less than 10 First Nations people. That may soon change.

“I feel if we can start integrating or attracting a few folks…. (Then the new employee) will bring a friend and a cousin and we’ll start building from that.”

Propp of Harvest Meats agreed that Indigenous people could be part of the labour solution. But at some point, Canadians and the federal government need answers to a couple of bigger questions.

Do we want policies that encourage people to work, or not?

And how do we get more people to live in rural Canada?

“I watch unemployment numbers every month. And unemployment (in Canada) has returned to pre-pandemic levels,” Propp said. “So, what’s the story? Where have all the people gone?”