Food In Canada

Raising the profile of food jobs

By Mark Cardwell   

Business Operations CareersNow Food and Beverage Ontario human resources

CareersNow has helped positively change public perceptions about working in Ontario’s food processing sector

The meat processing sector has been hardest hit by labour issues. Photo © Nataliia / Adobe Stock

When food scientist Jose Medina immigrated to Canada from Mexico in 2009, food and beverage companies here required jobseekers to be both qualified and experienced for the positions they were applying for.

“You needed to do three or four interviews, that was the norm,” said Medina, who was hired by the Original Cakerie as operations manager at its plant in London, Ont. He’s now the vice-president of regulatory, food safety and quality assurance at the Vancouver-based company. 

Medina says times have changed when it comes to hiring standards in the Canadian food and beverage industry.

“The only thing you need now is a pulse,” he said. “There are simply not enough people. Workers are more transient now. It makes things tough. We’ve been delaying some of our expansion projects.”

That’s why Medina is such a big fan of CareersNow, an industry-led, government-funded workforce development initiative dedicated to attracting and connecting jobseekers, student, and newcomers in Ontario with labour-starved food and beverage companies across the province.

New relations

Designed by Food and Beverage Ontario (FBO) and launched in 2021 with $2.4 million in funding from the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development, the two-year pilot project is focused on building new relationships with non-traditional partners of the food and beverage industry, from First Nations to chambers of commerce and high-school and post-secondary institutions and youth groups.

Program partners include Meat & Poultry Ontario, Discover Ability Network, Food Processing Skills Canada, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, the University of Guelph, and Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada.

The project also works to organize activities aimed at connecting jobseekers, young and old, with companies in real time, including virtual job fairs and webinars, ad postings on social media, free online training, and mentorships with industry experts to discuss career possibilities and professional development.

In the second year of the program, CareersNow conducted 12 job fairs and a conference, 12 mentorship sessions, career coaching for 50 jobseekers, engaged 500 individuals in job ready and new hire skills training, filled 384 jobs and engaged 400 employers engaged, implemented a secondary school outreach plan, engagement plans with Indigenous youth and with meat and poultry employers, and HR coaching for 10 SMEs.

“It’s a tool that’s been working very well for us and has brought us many people,” said Medina. “The way it is presented makes the food industry very attractive. It catches the attention and interest of young people, and it gives us a chance to tell them what we’re all about.”

Medina’s refrain is repeated by several food and beverage processors and other stakeholders across Ontario. The food and beverage processing industry is the largest manufacturing sector in Ontario. It boasts of 4,000 establishments—90 per cent of them are small and medium-size businesses—employing 125,000 people.

New engagement tool

The labour shortage is not unique to the food and beverage business,” said Chris Conway, CEO, FBO. “But it’s an acute problem in a critical industry.”

Conway pointed to a recent FBO study that projects a shortfall of 25,000 employees in the sector, which contributes nearly $14 billion to Ontario’s GDP and is the province’s largest purchaser of farm products, by 2025.

In addition to dealing with general labour shortages, one in four companies already waits more than a year to fill critical skilled trade positions.

For Conway, increasing awareness and education about the benefits of skilled trades and careers is essential to addressing the sector’s long-term labour needs.

“Our industry is highly innovative with tremendous career opportunities,” said Conway. “CareersNow helps us get that message out.”

According to Conway, the new program both builds on and replaces Taste Your Future, a communications campaign FBO launched in 2016 to engage young people about jobs and careers paths in the industry through social media.

He said many of the new partnerships and initiatives developed by CareersNow, including career fairs, online networking with recent graduates and students, and access to provincial and even national employment portals like Magnet, take those efforts to a whole new level.

“This program helps us better engage with the public, especially students and people who are looking at job and career opportunities,” said Conway. “It helps put some rubber on the road.”

Dr. Amy Proulx agrees. A professor and co-ordinator of the culinary innovation and food technology program at Niagara College in southern Ontario, she says the new program is raising the profile of the food sector and helping schools and educators recruit students in food-related programs.

“Food careers have very low visibility. There’s no vocabulary or vision about what that might look like. Onboarding of youth from high school has long been a struggle,” said Proulx. 

However, she says CareersNow helps both students and graduates hear and learn about the opportunities, skills, and connections they need to find, prepare for and land rewarding jobs in the province’s food and beverage sector.

“Food is essential for life and the food economy is essential to the success of our province and country,” said Proulx, one of many food industry leaders who have sent letters of support to the Ontario government, calling for renewed funding for the CareersNow program. The current funding ends on March 31.

A Food and Beverage Ontario study projects a shortfall of 25,000 employees in the sector by 2025. Photo © soupstock / Adobe Stock

A ‘meaty’ crisis

Meat and poultry processors are struggling more than other food companies to find workers to fill jobs that are both physically demanding and socially challenging.

“Meat processing is not the most attractive industry,” said Kristi Barnes, director of human resources and performance culture at Maple Lodge Farms, Canada’s largest chicken processor.

According to Barnes, worker recruitment and retention has become a constant challenge and pre-occupation for the family-owned firm, which employs some 2,500 people at six plants connected to its headquarters in a rural area in Brampton, Ont., and at another two facilities in the nearby city of Mississauga.

In addition to competitive wages and bonuses, the company offers benefits like a free daily shuttle bus service for its workers with multiple runs and routes, including one to the Wilson subway station, which has expanded the company’s reach across the Greater Toronto Area.

Barnes says the partnerships and activities developed by CareersNow are a boon for companies in an industry that is struggling to find workers.

“It’s a further opportunity to upgrade our reach, not just in general labour jobs, but also in skilled trades and salaried and non-salaried positions. Our needs are across the board,” she said.

Conway hopes the government funding for the program is renewed. “We believe that government is aligned with our objectives of placing jobseekers, including New Canadians, in the many available career opportunities in the food and beverage processing industry. These jobs pay an average of $22 per hour to start and can lead to real careers in the sector through on-the-job training. Also, we believe there are additional promising new career opportunities in the sector through our partnerships with First Nations, universities and colleges, chambers of commerce, and the Discover Ability Network,” he added. 

This article was originally published in the February/March 2023 issue of Food in Canada.

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