Is the Federal Student Support Killing Ag Labour?
I have seen several commentators in the past few days criticize the federal program offering support for students and new graduates struggling in the face of challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. They say providing this support will create a disincentive to students and prevent them from working on farms where help is needed. I think these critiques are an easy attack on this program and reflect a lack of understanding of both the requirements of agricultural labour and the details of the program. There are no doubt challenges with putting a program together that pleases everyone, particularly when it happens on a very short timeline.
Let's look at the program first. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit provides students who can't find a summer job and who aren't eligible for either EI or the CERB to get support of $1,250 per month during the summer. If you look at that based on four weeks of 40 hours per week, that equates to a wage of $7.81 per hour - well below minimum wage. There are, no doubt, some students who will forgo a job and take the benefit. For some it will simply be easier. We know that many jobs go unfilled even without this benefit. There are anecdotal examples of people turning down jobs because of this benefit. It is likely also true for the broader benefits - there are jobs right now in my community at the grocery store and the hospital in support work. For some the costs of getting to a job or finding accommodation near a job will make the taking the benefit more cost effective. For some the worry about becoming infected with COVID-19 will make this more appealing. For some they will be spending time caring for and supporting family. This program provides a safety net, not a work around. Students can still make more money by getting even a minimum wage job and I know many are looking for them.
One problem is that our population is increasingly urban. We have a large number of students who live in urban centres and couldn't take a job in a rural setting without having a place to live or means of transport to get there. This precludes them from taking some of these jobs. Another problem is that these jobs are often physical or smelly. There are reasons that these jobs are tough to fill. One might argue that this support program makes it more difficult but the reality is we weren't going to see an exodus from the city to the farms just because the market is a bit tougher.
Farmers don't want just any student either. The jobs require some knowledge and preferably experience. They are willing to train but want to know that people will stick with it. Conscripting student labour onto farms is a recipe for problems and is unlikely to lead to productive work.
Finally, I think there is value in looking at the whole package in support of students. There are wage supports and incentives for people trying to hire students that agricultural firms and farms can engage in. There are work placement provisions to help students get meaningful experience. There is a Youth Employment and Skills Strategy to help youth develop the skills and gain the experience they need to successfully transition into the labour market. Funding will support a range of measures in high-demand sectors such as agriculture, technology, health and essential services, creating over 6,000 additional job placements. Agriculture is first on that list.
There are likely things that could be better. There are even likely some students who will not take jobs and take advantage of the program. Killing the program in the hopes that it might lead some students to ag labour is misguided and misinformed. We will not solve the problem in accessing labour in agriculture easily and this program is hardly making it worse.
Recommended citation format: von Massow, M. "Is the Federal Student Support Killing Ag Labour?". Food Focus Guelph (83), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, April 29th, 2020.