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Skilled help wanted

To find skilled workers, grocers are strengthening local connections and widening their search

When Highland Farms opened its new store in Vaughan, Ont. in March, owner and president Charles Coppa added skilled meat counter staff from another store with plans to train more from within the ranks. Coppa pays close attention to maintaining skilled workers in his business because throughout Canada, skilled butchers, bakers and cooks have become scarce even while demand for their services grows.

The shortage is symptomatic of a widespread difficulty of attracting younger generations to the trades. For five consecutive years, the Manpower Group’s global talent shortage survey has listed skilled trades as the area most acutely affected, and in 2015 identified chefs, bakers and butchers among the toughest workers to find. How acute is the shortage in Canada? During the first quarter of 2017 alone, more than 2,350 positions in need of skilled bakers, chefs and retail or wholesale handlers of meat and fish went unfilled, according to Statistics Canada.

Attracting skilled meat handlers is particularly challenging. “The Canadian Meat Council did a survey of 15 rural plants and we could have hired almost 1,500 people the next day if we’d had them,” says Ron Davidson, the council’s senior vice-president, international trade and public affairs.

For family-owned VG Meats in Simcoe, Ont., which produces farm-to-fork beef for its own and other stores specializing in local product, part of the solution involves hiring skilled workers from around the world through the Ontario Immigration Nomination Program. “It gives us skilled people right away,” says Kevin Van Groningen, one of VG’s co-owners.

In-house training is the other component and, in 2014, the family launched Chop School, a two-week course that paid students to learn. The family whittled hundreds of applicants down to 12 students; each cost $14,000 to train. Of those, four left early on and four stayed on to work in the business. “The other four were gobbled up by other competitors,” says Van Groningen.

The next year, the family trained people for smaller butchers with those businesses footing the costs. VG has since partnered with London, Ont.-based Fanshawe College to provide hands-on experience for the college’s culinary programs.

Colleges are key sources of skilled workers and training to help staff upgrade skills. Many offer accredited baking and cooking programs as well as retail meat cutting instruction. As well, colleges often offer placements and internships. Fanshawe’s new pre-apprenticeship retail meat cutting program, for instance, requires students to do a 12-week paid work placement and comes with a small wage subsidy for employers.

Similar placements occur in the college’s bakery and culinary programs and local grocers often host students. “Grocers are doing some pretty cool stuff that many students who are going out to some restaurants wouldn’t necessarily get the experience or exposure to,” says James Smith, chair of the college’s school of tourism and hospitality.

Colleges also deliver customized corporate training that can address a specific need in a minimum amount of time. “We recently worked with Sobeys in southern Ontario and did cake decorating for their bakers across their sector,” says Craig Youdale, dean of the Canadian Food and Wine Institute at Niagara College. To help businesses finance training, the Institute taps into the Canada-Ontario Job Grant program.

Correspondence and online training opportunities are available too, such as the Baking Association of Canada’s correspondence course that includes components on cake and bread making.

Forging local connections might present alternative solutions, as Vincenzo’s specialty market in Waterloo, Ont., discovered. To create an edge in its takeaway foods, the store’s owners partnered with restaurant chefs to offer “pop-up” lunches rather than add kitchen staff. “It gives us an opportunity to not only become a destination for prepared foods and foods to take out, it gives a lot of local restaurants opportunities to make our customers aware of their business,” says Carmine Caccioppoli, Vincenzo’s co-owner.

The bottom line is to consider your skilled labour recruitment strategy as a long-term investment, says Van Groningen. And keep in mind that offering just a job is no longer enough, adds Keith Müller, a chair in Conestoga College school of business and hospitality. “If young people see a career path in this, they’re more inclined to stay.”

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's September issue

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