How to build Ontario’s agri-food workforce

Sector leaders and organizations use interactive experiences and hands-on learning to raise students’ awareness about careers in agriculture and food.

By Kate Ayers
Staff Writer
Better Farming

As the Canadian agricultural sector continues to grapple with a labour shortage, some industry leaders are stepping up to the plate to help attract students with new perspectives and fresh ideas.

As part of their national thinkAG initiative, Agriculture in the Classroom Canada (AITC-C) provides resources, programs and learning tools to help students envision fulfilling and fitting future careers in the agri-food industry.

Farm Credit Canada (FCC), Bayer Crop Science, CropLife Canada and the Canadian Canola Growers are just a few of the organizations that provide ongoing support to AITC-C to inspire and engage young people in connecting to careers in the agri-food sector.

AITC-C’s engAGe events and genAG programs are part of the organization’s thinkAG program to encourage students to picture themselves in careers in ag. These events and programs are designed to captivate students in their middle years through high school.

 Agriculture in the Classroom Canada  engAGe event
    Agriculture in the Classroom Canada photo

This year marks engAGe’s pilot year and FCC generously supported the event.

“Through inspiring speakers, interactive culinary experiences and hands-on learning activities, engAGe attendees, teachers and students from urban centres learned that agriculture and food career opportunities extend into science, technology, engineering, math, business and more,” said Shayla Hertz, AITC-C’s thinkAG manager.

“Between the Montréal and Vancouver events in the fall of 2019 and spring of 2020, we reached over 700 students, over 60 teachers, and engaged over 70 volunteers from the agriculture and food community to support the event delivery.”

Delivering this program to students in urban areas is valuable because the ag sector “competes with so many other industries. When young people think of careers in science and technology, they typically think of medicine or engineering,” said Trish Jordan. She’s the government and industry affairs specialist for Bayer Crop Science Canada.

“Those industries are great, but we want young people to also consider some awesome careers … in the agricultural sector. There is much more to agriculture than farming.”

The genAG program, supported by RBC, involves high school students developing and implementing innovative marketing concepts to promote ag and food career options to their peers.

“Over the last three years, the genAG program was delivered over 10 times. It has impacted over 1,500 students and numerous teachers across Canada,” Hertz said.

AITC-C is also currently developing a new thinkAG website, dedicated to career exploration for students. This “website will allow students to complete an interactive career aptitude test through an app, and discover ag and food careers suited to their interests and preferences,” she said.

“In all of AITC’s resources, initiatives and programs, we emphasize 21st-century learning skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration.”

Promoting awareness of opportunities in the agri-food industry can help ensure we have a passionate, knowledgeable, and inclusive workforce in the future. These individuals can help the industry continue to flourish.

“When you attract young people who may not have grown up on a farm or who come from outside of the ag industry, I think they are very inquisitive,” Jordan said.

“They’re eager to learn and they may do things or ask questions that could expose inherent biases that we all have when working in the industry,” she said.

“Students without ag backgrounds could be valuable additions to the workforce because they question the status quo and provide new perspectives,” Hertz added.

“We are looking for raw ingenuity across the board - that is what is needed to tackle challenges and develop innovative solutions to complex problems,” she said.

“From a public trust standpoint, we care about young people being informed about the various careers along the food supply chain to help them better connect with and understand how food is produced. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to ensure that we have an informed and confident future consumer base and that their perceptions of agri-food are positive.”

And, of course, a career in this sector offers benefits for the individual, too.

“We want to attract the best and brightest minds to agriculture because we know they can have positive long-term careers with good pay and good opportunities for growth, development and application of their experiences,” Jordan said. BF

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