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Bio-economy needs workers

A report from BioTalent Canada shows the labour market needs to recruit thousands.
wp bioeconomy
The bioeconomy is the industry that uses agricultural, forestry and fishery resources, along with waste, to make a range of products, including crushing canola to manufacture biodiesel and processing oats to make skin lotion.
WESTERN PRODUCER — Western Canadian companies that produce biofuel, make nutritional supplements or process hemp fibres into kitty litter have the same problem as hundreds of other businesses on the Prairies — a lack of workers.

A Dec. 6 report from BioTalent Canada, a firm that studies the labour market in the bio-economy, says the industry will need to recruit thousands of new employees in the next seven years.

“Western Canada’s bio-economy is likely to require 18,800 additional workers by 2029. Companies will be challenged to fill positions due to a highly competitive labour market…. Distribution, manufacturing, marketing and management capacity will be particularly urgent areas of need across all sub-sectors,” BioTalent said in its report. 

The 18,800 estimate applies to Alberta and British Columbia.

By 2029, firms in Manitoba and Saskatchewan will need about 3,400 more workers.

The additional workers fall into two categories: replacement workers for people who retire and new employees who help companies expand.

The “bio-economy” isn’t a familiar term for most Canadians. It’s the industry that uses agricultural, forestry and fishery resources, along with waste, to make a range of products.

BioTalent divides the bio-economy into four categories: bio-health, agri-bio, bio-industrial and bio-energy.

Specifically, it is things like crushing canola to manufacture biodiesel, or processing oats to make skin lotion. It also includes organizations that specialize in vaccine development or research into bio-plastics.

The industry is not small. Based on the report:

  • There are 3,800 bio-economy businesses and organizations in Alberta and B.C. They employed around 48,000 people in 2019. By 2029, that’s expected to rise to 55,000.
  • In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, there were 700 companies that employed nearly 10,000 people in 2019. That could increase to 12,000 by 2029.
  • Nationally, bio-economy firms employed 200,000 Canadians in 2019.

The BioTalent report looked at future labour challenges in the sector, but many businesses and organizations are already short on workers.

“Overall, 59 precent of surveyed companies across all sub-sectors in Western Canada already report some or significant challenges recruiting and retaining qualified staff,” BioTalent said. “The outlook suggests these will continue and likely worsen through to 2029.”

A massive issue for many firms is an aging workforce. Employees in their 50s and 60s will soon retire and replacing that experience will be difficult.

A BioTalent survey of employers found that many companies cannot find candidates who have the necessary skills.

In particular, many applicants lack soft skills.

“The most critical skills gaps among candidates… are problem solving, communication… and the ability to understand and follow standard operating procedures,” the BioTalent report says.

Marilyn Britton, the human resources manager with Grain Millers, which operates an oat mill in Yorkton, has witnessed a similar problem. It’s possible to teach new employees about technical processes at the plant and the details of milling. But things like communication and co-operation are harder to teach.

“The soft skills are very valuable for us. Those are overlooked,” she said. “Are you dependable, are you flexible, do you want to learn? All those things are almost like a personality (trait).”

One potential solution for the labour shortfall could be recent immigrants to Canada. Companies in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan could target immigrant groups to replace aging workers and fill job vacancies, BioTalent report said.

That strategy is more challenging for the Prairies because most immigrants end up in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.