Local program to boost number of meat cutters

MIDDLEBURY — A group of educators, businesspeople and economic development officials is working with the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center to establish a training program aimed at filling the dwindling ranks in Vermont’s meat cutting industry.
The two-year program, which the career center will offer in collaboration with Vermont Technical College (VTC), could be offered as soon as this fall to adults (18 and over) who would be able to earn state certification for careers as meat cutters.
A 13-member advisory committee is currently putting together a curriculum for the program, which would include opportunities for on-line learning and hands-on practice at the Hannaford campus as well as at meat processing facilities throughout the state. As such, organizers believe the program will be accessible to students from throughout the region, including other New England states.
“We have been getting calls (from prospective students) from Connecticut and Maine,” Hannaford Career Center Executive Director Lynn Coale said of the attention the offering is already drawing.
The demand for meat cutters and slaughterhouses in Vermont is well chronicled and becoming more acute as the state advances its localvore movement and nurtures its reputation for natural agricultural products. Coale noted there are only a half dozen slaughterhouses in Vermont, including two in Addison County — Vermont Livestock in Ferrisburgh and Buxton’s Custom Cutting in Orwell.
There are also fewer meat cutters to staff those facilities and therefore meet the growing demand for Vermont-raised beef, pork and other meats.
“The present (meat cutting) workforce is heading for retirement pretty quickly,” Coale said. “They are dedicated to keeping their craft alive and want to share their skill-sets.”
Frank Read is one of seven busy meat cutters at Vermont Livestock. Read, a member of the advisory committee developing the new program, is in his 50s and is anxious to see more people step forward to fill in the ranks when he and his contemporaries leave the industry.
“There is more and more demand for local meat,” Read said. “To meet that growing demand… we need more cutters.”
But the younger generation hasn’t been flocking to the trade, Coale acknowledged — this in spite of the fact that the average beginning wage in the vocation is around $15.50 per hour, which can ascend into the mid-$20s per hour.
Part of the problem, Coale theorized, has been the lack of training programs that can lead to state certification for graduates. The state, Coale noted, rightfully imposes rigorous standards for meat processing — covering such areas as workplace safety, sanitation and product storage.
With that in mind, Hannaford Career Center and VTC successfully applied for $16,500 and $6,000, respectively, through the state’s 2011 Jobs Bill to develop a educational program that will turn out graduates who will meet state standards for meat cutting.
Plans call for VTC to offer coursework leading to an associate’s degree in custom cutting. Hannaford Career Center will offer a two-year program leading to state certification in the craft. The first year would give students instruction on such things as knife skills and occupational safety requirements. The second year of the program is to involve a paid apprenticeship, according to Coale, who at the end of this month will be visiting a meat processing plant in eastern Oklahoma to gather more information for the career center’s curriculum. The Hannaford Career Center kitchen will also serve as a training spot for students.
Meanwhile, program organizers are building relationships with the state’s meat processing facilities in an effort to provide hands-on experience for the students. Coale said the new program will ideally need between four and 10 students annually to work.
The meat cutting program will be a part of Hannaford Career Center’s adult education curriculum and will therefore depend on tuition paid by the students — not property tax dollars that help subsidize the career center’s regular offerings for area high school-age students.
Les Fuller, a meat cutter with Middlebury-based Greg’s Meat Market, is also a member of the advisory committee. He is pleased that the career center is going to be offering experience to students who he said would otherwise likely have to enroll in a chain store apprentice program.
“There is just not the opportunity for the younger generation to break into the industry,” Fuller said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]

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