Greenhouse Canada

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Inside View: November 2018

A new type of worker


October 30, 2018
By Gary Jones

Back in the ‘60s, ‘they’ thought there was such a rapid change in technology happening that ‘they’ feared a dramatic change in the workplace. Governments predicted that people would have to accept 22-hour work weeks, 3-day work weeks or retirement at 36. It hasn’t quite panned out, has it?

If I was in any doubt that our labour supply was in crisis, my radio alarm woke me with news this week. Vancouver’s NEWS 1130 cited a new Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) report that labour shortages are being felt in many job sectors and that the situation “is likely to last at least a decade”. BDC chief economist Pierre Cléroux is quoted as saying that “because of the aging population, it is getting much more difficult to recruit people.”1 … “The study found just under 40 per cent of Canadian small and mid-sized businesses are already having difficulty finding new employees, which means they’re forced to refuse orders or delay deliveries.”2

Of course this is really non-news to horticulture: we’ve known this for at least the past decade, probably much longer. But now that it’s hit other industries (hospitality, retail, manufacturing, construction), it’s now news-worthy. For horticulture in particular, this isn’t helped by recent increases in minimum wages across all provinces (Greenhouse Canada, p. 26, June 2018).

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The BC Landscape and Nursery Association (BCLNA) has been leading a five to eight year Labour Market Information Study. Phase 2 has just been completed. Some key data makes for interesting reading, for example:

  • “Across Canada and BC, the agriculture-horticulture sector is expected to show significant growth”
  • “BC’s agriculture sector employed 40,200, with … 6,200 workers in greenhouse and 3,620 workers in nursery operations”
  • “The greenhouse and nursery sector in BC employs over half (54%) of its workers on a seasonal basis
  • “…unskilled labour makes up 90% of the workforce.”3

“This Final Report is being followed up with industry and other stakeholders, such as DIVERSE-    city, being part of the discussion. The purpose is to review the report and consider the recommendations to build a strong Phase 3 (‘Strategy Development Proposal’) which will take 12-18 months to develop after which will come piloting of the resulting program.”4

Back to the BDC. “You might see more and more technology because one way to face this problem, companies will invest in technology to reduce their need for workers,” says Cléroux.2

Again, not news to us. BCLNA states that “With technological advancement, automation in horticulture can bring a meaningful solution to the chronic labour shortage.” But, the BCLNA report also goes on to say, “Many owner/operators currently do not see automation as a viable solution, and as a result need support in exploring the potential value of automation.”3

That said, every day there are reports of ever more astounding automation innovations. HortiDaily.com reports “Sweet pepper harvesting robot close to the finish line.”5 How will this high-tech machinery and fully autonomous greenhouses affect the workplace? Robert Grootscholte, general director of 4Evergreen says, “I am very curious how young people think about autonomous cultivation, in which the computer reads the plant by using big data, and in which the greenhouse becomes completely self-regulating.”6

Of course, such technology comes at a cost. “As always, the financial investment in technology is significant.”3 Not everyone will want (or be able) to make these types of investments, even if they pay off in the long term, as such investments often help reduce worker downtime by alleviating physical demands on the body and repetitive injury issues.

If nothing else, I at least know one thing – it sure is difficult to predict the future. Last time I checked, most people were not retiring at 36.

  1. Business Development Bank of Canada;
  2. Druker and Wong, News 1130 Sept 5 2018;
  3. BCLNA “BC Agriculture-Horticulture and Landscape-Horticulture sectors Labour Market Information Study.” Phase II, Final Report;
  4. Hedy Dyck, BCLNA;
  5. Wageningen University, HortiDaily 5 Sept 2018;
  6. HortiDaily, Sept 5 2018.


Gary Jones is co-chair of horticulture at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Langley, BC. He sits on several industry committees and welcomes comments at

Gary.Jones@kpu.ca


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