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Essex County Greenhouses need skilled workers
LEAMINGTON, Ont. -- Peter Quiring's launch pad into Ontario's $1-billion greenhouse industry was a small shop he started with a used welding machine, a grinder and a cutting torch.
A welder and fabricator by trade, he got his start at Windsor shops serving the auto industry. He later completed the mechanical design program at St. Clair College and, in 1994, set up his own business in his hometown of Leamington, where he saw an opportunity to supply and install heating and automation systems for rapidly expanding greenhouse operations. Soon he was building the structures.
When he couldn't sell 18 acres of high-tech greenhouses he built on spec in 1999, he took the final plunge and began to grow bell peppers.
Today, at age 49, Quiring is the owner of Canada's largest greenhouse complex. His Nature Fresh Farms Ltd. occupies 130 acres under plastic and glass along Highway 77 north of Leamington's urban centre.
In this southwestern corner of Ontario, which has the highest concentration of greenhouse vegetable production in North America, Quiring is a leader in adopting the latest technology and finding innovative ways to reduce costs. Where the former tradesman is coming up short is finding skilled workers prepared to make a career under the glass.
It is a concern that is uniting the fiercely competitive and independent greenhouse owners, said Anne Miskovsky , Leamington's economic development officer.
Not only do they need expert growers, some of whom they've had to recruit from as far away as the Netherlands and Israel, they are worried that some of the companies that service their greenhouses can't find enough computer technicians, marketing personnel and tradespeople, she said.
There have been discussions involving the town, growers and St. Clair College about how to improve training and recruitment. Quiring, whose friendly, low-key demeanour belies his driven nature, has been "wonderful" to work with, Miskovsky said.
Like the auto industry he once worked in, Quiring is up against competitors from around the globe.
"Now we have to rely on a highly skilled workforce, a very efficient workforce. Because if we're not skilled, if we're not efficient, then we have to go back to being cheap. Well, I don't think that's a possibility for us," he said.
Quiring doesn't know what his businesses are worth, but it has taken "a lot of debt" to get where he is today.
The spotlessly clean, highly automated hydroponic greenhouses of Nature Fresh Farms produce 15 million pounds of bell peppers (red, yellow and orange) and 15 million pounds of tomatoes (on the vine and beefsteak) a year. During the main growing season, from May through November, they employ 275 workers - ranging from minimum-wage pickers and packers to senior growers, who are responsible for maintaining ideal crop conditions and can make $100,000 annually.
Peppers are moved from the vines in trolley carts with weight sensors that gently lower them onto conveyor belts to be sorted and packed.
Vine tomatoes aren't touched by human hands once pickers place them in boxes that are stacked on carts that move along a rail system that snakes its way through the greenhouse to the packing area.
Water that carries nutrients to the hydroponically grown plants is tested weekly and recycled. Heat and temperature are computer controlled to keep them at the perfect level.
Each shipping box is labelled so the tomatoes and peppers can be traced back to the section of the greenhouse where they were grown.
Quiring's greenhouse construction and equipment manufacturing plant, South Essex Fabricating Inc., is also becoming more automated, using laser cutters to perform tasks once done manually.
It employs 60 people year round, most of them skilledtrade workers.
He estimates that since 1996 it has built 1,200 to 1,500 acres of greenhouses for companies in southern Ontario, New York, Ohio, Michigan and even North Carolina.
Recruiting skilled-trade workers for both the fabrication plant and the greenhouse operation has always been a challenge, Quiring said.
Nature Fresh Farms has a permanent Help Wanted sign posted out front, a common sight outside many greenhouses in the area.
For decades, Ontario greenhouse vegetable growers have relied on seasonal workers from Mexico and the Caribbean to provide a reliable and dedicated core of pickers, packers and janitors. Quiring said foreign workers fill roughly half those lower-wage jobs in his greenhouses and he is able to hire locally for the rest, although recently it's getting harder as greenhouses expand.
Roughly 70 per cent of the 10,000 jobs in the sector go to Canadians, said George Gilvesy, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. The bulk of those jobs are in Leamington, Kingsville and surrounding communities in Essex County, Chatham-Kent and Lambton County.
Economic development officer Miskovsky estimates at least 20 per cent of the jobs are well-paying ones that require skilled trades or post-secondary training.
"In the past and now, if we're advertising to hire just about any skilled tradesman, including food safety and quality control people, the amount of competent replies we get to an ad is very limited," Quiring said.
"It can be anything - electrical, refrigeration, even welders I have a hard time getting ... If the economy improves it will be exponentially more difficult to find those people."
In his view, one stumbling block is an antiquated apprenticeship system that isn't accessible enough to young people and too onerous for employers to use effectively.
"A big part of the problem for greenhouses, I think, is perception," said Peter Tumidajski, vice-president of strategic planning for St. Clair College. Outside communities such as Leamington, Canadians aren't aware of how automated they've become and the sophisticated servicing, marketing and distribution systems that surround them.
The college is working on developing a training program for greenhouse technicians, but it lacks an up-to-date training facility, he said.
In the meantime, Quiring and other greenhouse owners make do.
"By and large, I've trained my own skilled-trades people, especially in the welding and the engineering and design part," Quiring said.
In the past year, Nature Fresh Farms has started inhouse training programs for growers, and it currently has nine.
"Typically, we just look for people in the workforce that show potential," said Quiring. "Attitude is everything ... I'm looking for people that want a career, not necessarily people who want a paycheque for today."
Quiring, who grew up in a farm family with six siblings, embodies that drive. His cellphone is beeping every few minutes during a half-hour interview.
He rarely works fewer than 70 hours a week. A good chunk of that is on the road, and some of it is spent sorting out problems in his head while he sits in front of the television at night, he said.
His passion isn't as much for greenhouses as for innovating and cutting his own path.
"I've always wanted to be in business and I've always had that entrepreneurial spirit, wherever that takes me," he said.
His son, Mat, and future sonin-law John Ketler are working with him in the greenhouse business. Quiring also has three daughters. When it comes to his children's careers, he just wants them to do something they like.
"It doesn't really matter what somebody does as long as it's good, honourable work and they do their best at it," he said. "From there, you can take it to whatever level you want to."
Some of the high-skilled jobs in the vegetable greenhouse industry include the following:
. Growers and assistant growers who monitor the crops of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to ensure conditions are ideal
. Production supervisors and managers who oversee the day-to-day staff in the greenhouses
. Packing managers
. Maintenance managers and assistants who look after the boilers and other equipment used to run the greenhouses
. Sales and marketing personnel
. Transportation and logistics co-ordinators
. Industrial automation experts
Read more: http://www.windsorstar.com/business/Essex+County+Greenhouses+need+skilled+workers/6615837/story.html#ixzz1v9o23wKK
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