Underutilized groups could ease labour shortage: economist

An economist with the Conference Board of Canada used a series of charts and graphs on Thursday to demonstrate something that his Red Deer audience was already painfully aware of: Alberta is suffering from a labour shortage.

An economist with the Conference Board of Canada used a series of charts and graphs on Thursday to demonstrate something that his Red Deer audience was already painfully aware of: Alberta is suffering from a labour shortage.

Michael Burt was among the presenters at an Agriculture Labour Summit organized by the Agriculture Industry Labour Council of Canada. He described three trends that are contributing to the current scarcity of workers.

The first relates to demographics, and the fact baby boomers are transitioning into retirement.

“This is the tidal wave that’s definitely going to impact us,” said Burt, adding that the baby bust generation — those 16 to 24 — will be unable to replenish the labour pool.

“It’s actually shrinking,” he said of the numbers coming in.

As recently as the early 2000s, said Burt, Canada’s work force was growing at nearly two per cent a year. Now the increase is less than one per cent, and declining.

Prior to the recession, the country’s worker participation rate was close to 68 per cent, said Burt. That fell with the economic downturn and has never rebounded.

“Even though the economy has largely recovered from the recession and employment is well above where it was prior to the recession, the participation rate continued to decline.”

Burt also described how much of Canada’s job creation over the past 10 years has occurred in the West, with this trend expected to continue.

“So we’re going to have to continue dealing with labour shortages in Western Canada.”

Another phenomenon noted by Burt was that employment growth has occurred in just a handful of sectors, most notably natural resource development and some key service industries.

Over the next several years, he said, 70 per cent of the new jobs will be found in health care, wholesale and retail trade, professional services, accommodation and food services, construction, and financial services.

“The long and short of it is there are labour shortages in Canada but they’re primarily in Western Canada and they’re primarily in a few key occupational groups.”

When it comes to solutions, the options are to find more people or make the ones you have more productive, said Burt. He suggested tapping into underutilized groups, like young people, older people, aboriginals, the disabled and women.

Interprovincial migration has been bringing more than 15,000 people a year to the Prairie provinces, but this hasn’t been enough to keep pace with demand, he said. Foreign workers already provide an important source of labour, but more are needed, said Burt.

Similarly, temporary foreign workers have helped address the problem — especially in the case of agriculture.

“One in five temporary foreign workers in Canada work in agriculture, and about one-quarter of the paid workforce in ag is now temporary foreign workers,” he said.

The drawback is that these workers are temporary — something Burt would like to see change.

As for productivity, Burt said farmers have been making great strides.

“For example, in Saskatchewan we’re producing twice as much per worker in agriculture today as we were in 2003.”

This mechanization of the industry will have to continue, he said.

Speaking after Burt was Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director of the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council. She described how her organization is working to address labour shortages, including through a labour task force created by a broad range of ag commodity groups. All cited scarce labour as their number 1 concern.

“The effects are being felt in all commodity industries,” said MacDonald-Dewhirst.

The task force has prepared a list of recommendations that address issues from temporary foreign workers to skills training. Now, industry needs to work with government to ensure these are implemented, she said. Among the other presenters at Thursday’s conference were Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson, and Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour Minister Ric McIver.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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