The labour shortage in Canada’s meat processing industry was terrible during the pandemic.
On top of thousands of unfilled positions, hundreds of workers were frequently absent because they had COVID-19 or had symptoms of the virus.
“If there was a 20 percent labour shortage in the pandemic, then you (also) had vacancies as the result of sicknesses,” said Lauren Martin, senior director of government relations and policy at the Canadian Meat Council.
COVID and employee illness is now a smaller problem for the meat processing sector.
However, lack of labour is costing the industry millions every day.
“We do still have that chronic labour shortage … which is upwards of 20 percent. It’s still there,” Martin said.
“I wouldn’t say that (it has) improved.”
The 20 percent number is an estimate because the last formal survey of meat processors and job vacancies was done in 2020 to describe the situation in 2019.
Food Processing Skills Canada, which supports the food and beverage manufacturing sector, found the following in its 2019 survey:
7,300 jobs at meat processing plants were unfilled, possibly 12.4 percent of all positions.
One vacancy meant $190 per day in lost profits for a meat processor.
For a day, that equals $1.39 million in lost profits, or $506 million in lost net revenue per year.
Food Processing Skills Canada hopes to update the labour and vacancy data this summer.
“We are conducting a new survey called Rapid Results, that will look at the current situation in the first week of June,” said Kevin Elder, project manager for labour market information.
“The rapid results survey will go out every two months and provide current industry information to all stakeholders… Anecdotally, I have had many (meat) processors express to me that the situation has gotten worse.”
Meat packers and processors did get some positive news in May when the federal government extended the Agri-Food Immigration Pilot until May 2025, which could help with the labour crisis.
Data from Food Processing Skills Canada indicates that the meat processing sector will require thousands of new employees over the next seven years.
“We see the need for 16,200 new workers … by 2030,” Elder said.
“This is due to the anticipated retirement of 13,900 people currently working in the sector and the projected growth of the sector requiring 2,300 new workers.”
The meat council is pleased with the extension of the pilot program, but it’s a tool, not a silver bullet solution.
“We would like permanency in the pilot program. We think it works,” Martin said.
“Our labour pool is not increasing in Canada so we do have to address it (the shortage) somehow.”