If you think the friendly neighbourhood butcher is a thing of the past, think again. As food savvy consumers become increasingly interested in what they eat, where it comes from, and how it’s prepared, meatcutting skills are more important than ever before. Qualified meatcutters, with the skills needed to process a whole range of meats from pasture to plate, are among the most sought after tradespeople in BC right now.
According to the Canadian Professional Meat Cutters’ Association (CPMCA), the meat industry, which consultant Ken Jakes dubs “the oldest trade on Earth”, is Canada’s fourth largest job creator, employing about 68,000 people in more than 1,000 companies across the country.
These numbers include a wide range of jobs in meat processing and value-added work, as well as sales, marketing and distribution, everywhere from abattoirs and large meat processing plants to supermarkets, sausage makers and butcher shops.
“I get calls at least once a week from employers looking for meatcutters,” says Bruce Jackson, a Union Representative with the United Food and Commercial Workers of Canada (UFCW) Local 247.
Several factors are driving demand, explains Jackson. The industry is facing a retirement bubble as many experienced meatcutters in all areas of the industry are due to retire in the next three to five years. Meanwhile, the need for meatcutting expertise is growing to meet consumers’ demand. Supermarkets are hiring more trained meatcutters to staff specialty meat and seafood counters, high-end butcher shops are cropping up in urban neighbourhoods, and niche wholesalers, like North Vancouver’s Two Rivers Meats, are stepping in to meet the growing demand for naturally-raised products.
To help fill the labour gap the CPMCA has sponsored research, run advertising campaigns, and launched a website, www.meatforce.ca, for the industry to post jobs and encourage job seekers to consider a career in the meat industry. The website is currently being upgraded to include a blog, resume template for job seekers, and an online ordering system for their training manual.
These efforts are paying off. The Retail Meat Processing Program at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops has run full, or nearly full, classes for the past several years.
As BC’s only accredited meatcutting training program, TRU offers two paths to achieve the training required to attain certification. Students with no industry experience can register for the nine-month, full-time Foundation Program that provides a thorough grounding in the theory and practice of meat processing, credit for the first level of apprenticeship, and 900 hours towards the required 4,500 hours. From there, students work in the industry, and then return to TRU for a four-week program to complete Level 2 training.
Alternatively, those already working in the industry can register as apprentices and attend TRU for four weeks a year, for two years, to complete their Level 1 and 2 training.
Regardless of the training and workplace experience pathway, once those and the BC Certificate of Qualification exam are successfully achieved, a meatcutter can obtain the journeyperson status. BC is the only province with active meatcutter apprenticeship training.
The meatcutting program prepares students for the business of meatcutting by stressing both accuracy and productivity, explains TRU Program Coordinator Corey Davison. “You can teach anybody how to cut meat and cut meat quickly, but you have to teach them how to make money at it too,” he says.
And they do: TRU students run several businesses while they train, processing products for local ranchers and hunters and running an on-campus retail meat store.
“We use naturally-raised beef from a ranch just up the road so we know the quality is excellent. And students work on the whole carcass, not just meat from a box, which is a skill that’s increasingly in demand,” adds Davison.
Students include recent high school graduates and older career changers, as well as chefs and ranchers wanting to expand their skill sets. They all have plenty of options after graduation.
“On average we have 30 job postings for a maximum intake of 18 Foundation Program students each year, so every graduate goes into a job if they want to,” says Davison.
“Some go on to an apprenticeship, others go straight into industry, and others get some experience and then open their own shop. Whichever route they take, we encourage students to come back, do their Level 2 training, and become fully qualified tradespeople, so they can go on and sponsor the next generation of meatcutter apprentices” he adds.
And there are plenty of reasons for doing so, observes Jakes. A former meatcutter and TRU program coordinator now working with the CPMCA, Jakes has almost 50 years’ experience in the field.
“With a Certificate of Qualification, a meatcutter can rise fairly quickly to a well-paying job,” he says.
It’s a good career choice for someone who likes a fast-paced environment, likes working with people, and enjoys working as part of a team. Meatcutting also offers a wealth of entrepreneurial opportunities, especially with the current growth in high-end, full service butcher shops and farm-to-table operations, adds Jakes.
Job security is another clear plus. “The food industry is always going to be here, so if meatcutters want to work, there’s always going to be a year round job out there for them.”
“After all, everybody has to eat.”