Canada’s growing bio-economy facing skilled labour shortage: report

By Mark Neufeld

Posted Dec 7, 2021, 6:48PM MST.

Last Updated Dec 8, 2021, 8:39AM MST.

The bio-economy in Canada is one of the few sectors that has grown during the pandemic, however a new report indicates Canada is facing a serious talent shortage when it comes to hiring skilled workers in the field.

The bio-economy uses renewable biological resources from land and sea – such as crops, forests, fish, animals and organic waste – to produce food, health products, textiles and green energy.

The federal government estimates the country’s bio-economy generates more than $4 billion in sales each year.

The recent report from BioTalent Canada, funded in part by the Canadian government, revealed that Canada will require thousands of workers over the next few years to take up roles in the bio-economy.

However the current pipeline for workers in the sector is largely empty.

“So, this is going to touch all of our communities in a very big way if we don’t address the issue head on,” said Rob Henderson, president and CEO of BioTalent Canada.

“Our figures indicate that by 2029 just in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, they are going to be short 3,400 workers.”

In total, the report estimates Canada will need 65,000 more workers in the bio-economy by 2029. That figure includes 24,500 for Ontario; 18,800 for Western Canada; 15,000 for Quebec; 3,400 for the Prairies and 3,300 for the Maritimes.

Henderson says Canada is home to about 12,000 bio-organizations that employ around 200,000 workers operating in four sub-sectors of the bio-economy: bio-health, bio-energy, bio-industrial and agri-biotech.

He says talented people who could thrive in the space represent untapped potential.

“Canadians with disabilities comprised less than 1 per cent of the workforce of the bio-economy,” he said. “Indigenous Canadians comprised less than 1 per cent, and even immigrants and newcomers comprised less than 17 pre cent. These are readily available workers that are strategically valuable.”

Nearly all Canadians have benefited from advances in bio-health, says Henderson, including one notable discovery that has saved the lives of millions.

“Just two weeks ago we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, by the parent of Canadian bio-technology: Frederick Banting, and his team.”

Sandy Marshall, executive director of Bio-Industrial Innovation Canada agrees the country will need more workers to service a growing bio-economy, but Canada is in a good position in the sector because of its supply of natural resources.

“I think what’s going to be critical is as we grow, we’re going to need to build anchor companies that have the critical mass to be able to create an ecosystem for other companies to grow around them.”

Marshall says by creating an innovation ecosystem similar to how Silicon Valley supports the tech sector, big companies can help smaller companies contribute to overall growth.

“At the moment we don’t have many of those key anchor companies and for them to grow we need good leadership, good ideas, and lots of workers to support their development,” said Marshall.

Dr. Dele Ola, who works with students at Winnipeg’s Red River College on projects relating to bio-health, expects more and more students will be attracted to work in the bio-economy after graduation.

“Our projects are tailor-made for the students to gain experience that will help them to integrate into the economy when they graduate,” said Ola, the director of the Technology Access Centre for Aerospace & Manufacturing.

“The bio-economy will continue to evolve into the foreseeable future and that will be driven by technology. So it’s bio-technology, bio-food security, innovation in health care, and everything that goes along side with that.

“I don’t think there is any end to it in the foreseeable future.”

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