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Ontario’s thriving food-making business faces growing labour shortage

Dean Chudleigh, owner of Chudleigh's Farm in Milton, Ont., is photographed in an apple orchard on Sept. 13, 2017. Chudleigh was part of a University of Guelph study on labour and the work force.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Demand for employees by Ontario's thriving food-making businesses is outstripping the supply of graduates at Canada's largest agricultural college.

There are four job openings for every graduate of University of Guelph's Ontario Agricultural College, according to a survey of 123 employers conducted by OAC.

The gap has risen from three jobs for every graduate in 2012, despite a 30-per-cent increase in enrolment over the same period, said Rene Van Acker, dean of OAC.

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"The industry continues to grow," Mr. Van Acker said in a telephone interview.

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Nicole Gallace, a recruiter in the food business with 10 years experience, said many agri-businesses are smaller companies that lack human-resources departments and the abilities to find the right applicants. At the same time, many graduates she comes across do not have the "soft" skills – leadership or communications – employers need.

This helps tilt the job market in favour of the well-qualified applicant, she said from Burlington, Ont.

Sixty-seven per cent of the agriculture companies and 51 per cent of the food processors or retailers said they had trouble finding qualified employees, according to the study, which was to be released on Thursday.

Richard Park, 24, graduated from OAC in 2016 with a Bachelor of Science degree and began working as a food technologist at a Toronto maker of teas, fruit drinks and other beverages. He was approached by a headhunter before long and now works at a private-label maker of sauces, improving manufacturing processes and recipes.

"For me, it was easy," he said of his job search.

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Ontario's food and agricultural sector employed 807,000 people in 2016, according to Statistics Canada, and is the province's largest employer. The sector includes everything from family farms to multinational food makers. Unlike most of Ontario's manufacturing sector, the agri-food industry came through the 2008 economic slump relatively unscathed, buoyed by a weak dollar and steady demand from domestic and U.S. consumers.

August's jobless rate in the region west and southwest of Toronto, home to the province's farm belt and many food processors, is just above 5 per cent, compared with Ontario and national averages that are closer to 6 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

While several food plants have been shuttered in recent years, many companies have spent money on technology, automating and upgrading their factories. This has driven demand for better-educated workers.

"There are high-tech, high-skill opportunities in the sector and those employers are looking for people that are highly trained," Mr. Van Acker said.

Dean Chudleigh is the owner of Chudleigh's Ltd., which employs 300 people and makes apple pies and other desserts in Milton, Ont. He said competition for talented and skilled people is fierce. He uses recruiters to find product developers, finance people and executives.

"It's really hard to find people who aren't looking for a job. And that's generally who you want," Mr. Chudleigh said.

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"Our employees get phone calls regularly asking them if they're interested in another job. It's just very competitive and that's just the new world," he said.

Founded in 1874, Guelph's OAC has 3,600 students in diploma, degree and graduate programs in liberal arts, commerce and science. The school graduates 1,300 people a year. Most, Mr. Van Acker said, will never work on a farm, despite the school's reputation as an agricultural training ground.

"We still do have students who go through our program and go back to the farm. But the majority of our graduates are going through our program and working outside of the farm gate," Mr. Van Acker said.

A majority of the companies responding to the OAC survey hire people with postsecondary education and more than half their employees have diplomas or degrees.

Mr. Van Acker said graduates are finding work in research and development, quality assurance, technical sales and government policy and regulations. The finance sector is a big employer, as well.

"There's an awful lot of demand in the banking sector for students coming out of our programs at banks and credit unions that are lending to the food and agriculture sector," he said. "They are one of the reliable sectors for our students and the ones that are asking most loudly for us to expand our program. They are looking for people that they will train who will do lending into the ag and food sector. They may also be looking for people who will work in asset analysis or looking at analysis of economics in the food and agriculture sector."

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