Plant Worker Shortages: A Complex and Stubborn Dilemma

Thomas Edison once said, “The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.”

This tidbit of wisdom makes all the sense in the world. However, the Atlantic Canada seafood processing industry seems to have the complete opposite problem: the opportunities have been clearly identified, but the overall-wearing folks can’t be found.

Atlantic seafood processing is a critical link in the seafood value chain and the nature of the industry requires that processors are located near to harvesters and are ready to process the fresh catch. However, the harvesters’ locations are often in small communities where labour is scarce.

Currently representing more than half of food manufacturing in Atlantic Canada, with an export market valued at over $3.9 billion, the fish and seafood processing industry makes a significant contribution to the Atlantic economy and to rural life in Atlantic Canada.

The Atlantic Canada seafood processing industry employs approximately 17,000 individuals. The employment composition of the industry is mainly comprised of general labourers and line workers who require on-the-job training and skills acquisition through safety training and experience. Higher level occupations in the seafood industry include quality assurance/quality control inspectors, supervisors, skilled technicians such as refrigerator engineers, maintenance technicians, power engineers and other occupations.

Atlantic Canadian seafood is in high demand not only nationally, but also internationally due to problems at salmon farms in Europe and Chile and increasing demands from Asian markets. Given the growing global requirements for protein sources, the demand is forecasted to increase.

Despite these significant growth opportunities, there is a serious issue confronting the seafood processing sector — the aging workforce. With the average age of employees at 56, processors are facing the reality that their experienced workforce will soon be retiring. Add to this scenario the impacts of ineffective foreign worker programs and rural youth that are leaving Atlantic Canada communities to attend post-secondary education and to secure careers in other industries and you have reasons for concern.

But how seriously should this problem be taken?

Food Processing Skills Canada (FPSC), the organization representing the Canadian and international food and beverage workforce, has concluded that growth of the seafood processing industry and economic development for the region is in jeopardy if labour constraints aren’t accurately understood and solutions implemented.

The FPSC recently unveiled the findings of a 2018 Atlantic Seafood Workforce Survey.

The survey suggested that the overwhelming majority of seafood processors in Canada are experiencing labour shortages and recruitment challenges. About 83 per cent of seafood processors report some form of recruitment challenges, with nearly one-fifth of seafood processors not being able to fill positions.

The FPSC also reported that recruitment challenges resulted in more than one in 10 jobs being left unfilled. On average, employers reported 11 per cent of paid positions were vacant over a year — translating to 1,800 unfilled positions.

Management, shellfish plant workers and supervisors were the top key occupations cited by seafood processors, while vacancies for general production workers were hardest to fill.

The survey also found that Atlantic seafood processors hired an estimated 6,300 new workers over the past year, representing a 40 per cent turnover rate for key occupations in the industry.

One of the disturbing conclusions from the FPSC survey was the numerous perceived causes of this chronic worker shortage. Included in the contributing factors were:

  • Distance of facilities from population centres
  • Demographic changes: aging population (37 per cent of workers 55+) and outmigration of youth and young families
  • Lack of available workers: many regions don’t have enough people in their communities to fill the jobs
  • Physical requirements and nature of jobs and working conditions: long hours (longer due to lack of workers), damp environment
  • Wages: average starting wages for plant workers/labourers range from $13.69 to $14.97 per hour
  • EI system: Challenges recruiting from among those with open claims or managing employees who want only a limited number of hours so as not to interfere with their claims
  • Type of employment: The supply of local workers desiring lower-skilled seasonal employment is shrinking while the demand for this type of worker is increasing (e.g. in tourism, agriculture, fish harvesting, etc…). As education levels rise, workers are looking for more full-time, higher skilled employment opportunities.

The FPSC performed a case study in the Clare Region of Southwestern Nova Scotia to illustrate the workforce dilemma.

Region of Clare, Nova Scotia

Seafood Processing Plants: 38

Population: 46,246 — The current labour force is unable to meet the average or peak labour requirements for the seafood processing sector

Current Labour Situation — 2017

22,925: Total labour force (employed or unemployed and actively seeking work)

21,628: Total labour requirement for competing industries

1,297: Available labour force

1,864: Total seafood processing employment (annual average)

-567: Shortage of workers (annual average) (assuming all 1,248 people work at a seafood plant)

-1,158: The shortage of workers becomes more acute when considering the workers required during the peak processing period



  • Without intervention, this labour market tightness will persist to 2030 and beyond.
  • About 62 per cent of those available to work (general public) will not apply to jobs offered by seafood processing plants.
  • This increases the shortage of workers to 1,371 (annual average) and 1,962 (peak).
  • All workers needed to cover the shortage currently do not exist in the Clare Region.
  • Vacancies will need to be filled by migration either domestically or internationally.
  • The extra workers needed for the peak period equals 2.6 per cent of the region’s total labour force.

The Region of Clare is just one localized example of this endemic problem, but is there any hope of overcoming some of the challenges already identified and righting the ship?

The FPSC is reporting that some progress is being made. For example, large and small processors are investing in technology and infrastructure to improve productivity, expand value-added products and lengthen the processing season. While these positive measures are not without their challenges, progress is being made.

Despite the seasonal nature of the work, fish and some seafood processors are designing and implementing initiatives to better attract and retain workers including:

  • Indigenous communities: Growing partnerships between non-Indigenous processors and harvesters and Indigenous community leaders. Greater participation by Indigenous peoples in processing and harvesting industries include the development of Indigenous-owned and operated processing facilities. In Northern New Brunswick (Baie Chaleur), an Indigenous-owned and operated crab processing plant is undergoing increased expansion. Approximately one quarter of their current staff is Indigenous. In Nova Scotia, one plant is working with the local Indigenous communities to provide employment to community members. Approximately one-third of their current staff is Indigenous.
  • Recruiting youth: Team Seafood is a government/industry partnership launched in 2016 to expand the work force in rural communities during the summer school break period. Students receive training, transportation, full-time work and post-secondary bursaries.
  • Temporary foreign workers program (TFWP): Approximately 22 per cent of employers used the TFWP to fill seven per cent of industry positions in 2017. Many have introduced measures to integrate TFWs into their workforce and welcome them into their communities by providing housing/transportation and assistance in becoming permanent residents.

While there are a few glimmers of hope, much more urgent work needs to be done to counteract this growing problem. The FPSC said in order to seize the economic opportunities, inspired policy and program solutions to some complex and stubborn labour and skills shortage problems are needed.


Kerry Hann

Managing Editor of The Navigator Magazine.

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