OMAHA (DTN) -- Meat-cutting schools are drawing more attention from universities as small processors try to find workers, but leaders from some of North America's oldest butchery programs say it still may be difficult to find students to go into entry-level meat-cutting jobs.
Nationally, a small number of colleges offer meat-cutting training or certification programs, but that group is growing. Last month, USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded seven grants to colleges totaling $4.5 million through the Meat and Poultry Processing -- Agricultural Workforce Training program. Funds were awarded to colleges and universities in Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas. Each college detailed plans to offer more training on butchering and fabricating meat.
The goal is to expand the pipeline of workers in the meat-processing sector, especially as the Biden administration offers support to smaller, niche processors and more producers look at ways to directly market their livestock.
There are a few colleges with established meat-processing programs. One of the most successful, in Alberta, Canada, focuses its attention on training people to open and run their own butcher shops.
NEBRASKA LOOKS TO ADDRESS INDUSTRY WORKER NEEDS
The Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture (NCTA) was one of the schools who received one of the USDA workforce training grants for $644,489. The college will partner with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Animal Science as well as meat lockers in Nebraska to develop a curriculum that will be partly online and partly include hands-on training at UNL meat sciences lab. The two colleges are working to have a curriculum and training program to start next January.
The Nebraska program will work with the state's meat lockers and other small processors to ideally find candidates that will enroll in the program. That will also expose those students to a cold cutting-room environment and some experience of the work conditions in smaller processors, who have struggled to find workers and keep them.
"Hopefully, we also will improve retention because they know what they're getting into," said Gary Sullivan, an associate professor of meat science at the University of Nebraska. "I've talked to processors that they've said, 'You know, I hire people and I don't know if they'll show up after break the first day sometimes because they don't know what the environment is like and those things are when you're working in a 45-degree room."
In gearing up for the program, the two colleges met multiple times with representatives from Nebraska's meat-processing industry about training and partnerships to make the meat-cutting program work. NCTA has already offered some shorter meat-cutting courses. Kelly Bruns, a former interim dean at NCTA who worked on the USDA grant proposal, said that, ideally, the program would like to draw 30 students in the first year.
"Right now, we're developing these online learning modules and, hopefully, we can push that out and maybe pilot that with some students at NCTA and on the UNL campus," Bruns said, then see if the actual hands-on training would be at a processing plant or UNL.
FUTURE BUTCHER SHOP OWNERS INSTEAD OF LINE WORKERS
One of North America's oldest meat-cutting programs at Olds College in Alberta -- about an hour north of Calgary -- has a wait list that's at least a year out for students to get in. Olds College has had a program since 1969 and typically harvests and processes six beef cattle and eight hogs every week and will often process lamb. The school's meat-processing program just went through a CA$7 million ($5.3 million) upgrade a year ago.
"This is a brand-new facility that just opened up last fall," said Brad McLeod, coordinator of the Olds College program. "This should tell you a little bit. Colleges aren't investing in things that aren't successful."
Olds' program is set up for a four-month certification that handles about 75 students a year. McLeod said the Olds program is unique in North America because students go from slaughtering the animals to processing specialty meats for the campus retail store.
McLeod noted he's been getting more calls from colleges in the U.S. about how to develop a successful meat-cutting program as meatpackers and smaller processors clamor for labor. McLeod is blunt that he has his doubts about the viability of meat-cutting programs for entry-level work.
"I don't really train labor. I train some labor, but most of my students are here to be entrepreneurs and start their own shops. That's what our focus is on is to help them run their own operations," McLeod said. "If you try to build a course to train labor, you won't find that student. Students don't want to come to school, pay tuition and take training to go be someone else's labor on the line. That student in Canada here does not exist."
A 56-YEAR-OLD PROGRAM IN ARIZONA
In Phoenix, Arizona, Gateway Community College has had a meat-cutting program since 1967. Like Olds, Gateway is a certification and not a credit-based program. James Hernandez is a former student who has been running the program now for nine years.
"We are a full-service butcher shop and processor," Hernandez said. "We service a lot of hunters during game season. They bring in their deer or elk, or whatever. Then we have producers who will have us process their cattle or hogs. The vast majority of our training is on the floor and having the meat in front of the students in a working environment."
Some students at Gateway come in to try to get some hands-on training to start their own butcher shop while others are trying to train for some area grocery stores in the Phoenix area.
"There is a sense of urgency and demand within the program. It's a working environment." Hernandez said.
While industry demand for workers is up, Hernandez said his program's enrollment has dropped since COVID hit. The program used to average about 20 students for a nine-month program, but his last class size started with 12-13 people though only a handful of students completed the course. He also noted some people are turned off by the cold environment in a meat shop.
"It's a hard job to know how to use that knife," Hernandez said. "You've got to get people to buy into something that is going to be profitable for them."
Hernandez said he's working to draw more attention to Gateway's program and develop more relationships with area grocers and smaller processors to help develop apprenticeships as well.
"We're looking to customize some training and do things differently to try to keep this program going. We want to try to rebrand a little bit and get ourselves out in the public a little more," Hernandez said. "I know the industry needs meat cutters, and we need to show just what a great career this can be."
MONTANA CO-OP LOOKS TO CONNECT WITH UNIVERSITY
Walter Schweitzer, president of the Montana Farmers Union, has been trying to get a similar program started at Montana State University-Northern that could tie into the Montana Premium Processing Co-op in Havre, Montana, a processor started by MTU and 60 producers who invested in the project. Montana Premium Processing started processing a small number of head as a custom-exempt facility in February by taking a mobile meat processing unit from a semi-truck trailer and attaching it to a kill floor and expanded cold storage facility at an old Schwan's building. The cooperative, which has eight employees, received its USDA inspection certification in June.
Schweitzer said the cooperative is one small effort to help boost processing capacity within the state. MSU-Northern has added some meat science classes to its curriculum and has been looking to develop a full program with processing that could tie into the cooperative.
"They are hopefully going to start a meat-processing curriculum next year," Schweitzer said.
Bill Jones, general manager of Montana Premium Processing, said he likes the idea of developing a butchery curriculum tied to the processing facility.
"That's one of my biggest goals being up here is trying to train other people about the industry," Jones said.
RETAIL ON CAMPUS ADDS VALUE
Both Olds College and Gateway Community College have retail butcher shops on their campus that help market their products and offset some of the costs. McLeod highlighted that producers often focus on primal cuts, but its sausages, jerky, liverwurst, blood pudding and headcheese where small meat shops provide value by ensuring they market everything from nose to tail from an animal. He noted the retail shop in Olds did about CA$97,000 ($73,500) in sales last month.
"Primal cuts really don't change. It's what you do with the rest of the beef is where you're going to make your money. If you don't have the rest of the animal sold, you're done," McLeod said. "How do you merchandise the rest of it? You have the meat pies, jerky, sausage-making. That value added is where we make our money."
Olds College Meat Processing Program: https://www.oldscollege.ca/…
Gateway Community College in Phoenix: https://www.gatewaycc.edu/…
Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture: https://ncta.unl.edu/…
Montana Premium Processing Co-op: https://www.mtpremiumprocessing.com/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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