Originally published March 3, 2016 in the Manitoba Cooperator
Becky Parker is a young woman with a vision and passion — to engage and educate youth about agriculture, the agri-food sector and it’s many career opportunities. She is a Project and Partnership Strategist with Ontario Agri-Food and Education and a Nuffield Scholar researching models of ag career education.
She shared a rather startling fact at Manitoba Ag Days in January. It is estimated that by 2022 there will be 74,000 job openings in the Canadian agri-food sector but one third will go unfilled. In fact, Farm Credit Canada has identified a labour shortage in agriculture as the leading risk management factor for our industry.
Parker believes the answer to the labour shortage is sitting in our Canadian classrooms right now. “There’s a feeling, there’s an identity to working in agriculture,” she said. We need to excite and engage young people, yet remain realistic. Certain jobs aren’t for everyone, especially in primary production. Many students admit, it is “too much work.” So how can we sell these jobs and open their eyes to other job prospects in agriculture?
First, we need to work on perspective, she advised. So many view agriculture as farming and/or being a farmer and are unaware of the many other opportunities that exist. Everyone in the industry can work on this issue.
We can start by providing students with hands-on experience — field trips to farms or ‘take a kid to work’ days. Connect with school guidance counselors and consider apprenticeship programs. Share information on resources. Ag in the Classroom offers a variety of learning opportunities for students of all ages. GrowingCareers.ca is a website designed for both educators and students to explore careers in the agri-food sector.
Secondly, “Be a mentor or teacher,” Parker stated. Volunteer with Ag in the Classroom or 4-H. Host a meeting or ag forum, share your experience. Consider what other countries are doing. In New Zealand Get Ahead Career Experience Days are held across the country where students not only meet a variety of successful professionals in the ag industry, but also complete a hands-on activity associated with a particular job. The impact is powerful and positive.
Australia has an Art4Agriculture program where students research an agriculture commodity or issue and present their findings through art on a fiberglass cow – a very innovative and memorable way to teach. It not only brings the farm into the classroom but builds relationships between schools, industry and business while raising awareness of career pathways.
But sharing your story, Parker told the audience, is one of the most important things you can do. That doesn’t necessarily mean talking about ‘what’ we do – it is far more powerful to share the ‘why’. We are far more likely to inspire if we share the reasons and the passion behind our career choice. Social media provides a great platform but volunteering or everyday conversations also offer opportunities.
Being proactive and starting early will open students’ eyes to the wide variety of jobs available. We each need to do what we can to engage the next generation and ensure a labour shortage will not be a crippling issue for agriculture in 2022. Whether it is on our own or by other means, she encourages all of us to “Step up to plate, and swing the bat.”