PSU Extension Butcher School fills gap in workforce training

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meat in a pile
Meat gets piled up after it's trimmed, Oct. 8, in Hepler's Meats, near Emlenton, Pennsylvania. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

It’s hard to find good help, especially if you run a butcher shop. Labor shortages are one the main issues butchers run into when trying to expand or even just run their businesses.

It’s the sort of job you can learn as you go, but it takes time. That’s a luxury many employers don’t have when they’re trying to meet high demand. They need skilled and experienced workers who can step into the shop without needing to learn the basics.

That’s why the Penn State Extension Butcher School was launched this year.

Jonathan Campbell, meat extension specialist with Pennsylvania State University Extension, said they’d been tossing around the idea for a couple years, but the COVID-19 pandemic made the need more immediate.

The last technical school that taught meat processing closed down earlier in the 2000s, Campbell said. It was in Oklahoma.

Culinary schools teach meat processing to some extent, but it’s nothing like what you need to know if you’re working in a butcher shop, he said. There are a couple of online programs that launched this year, and short courses that introduce people to the business over a couple days.

Butcher schools are expensive. The best way to learn how to break down a beef carcass is to do it with the real thing. That can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000.

“To teach that, you may devalue some of that product in the process,” Campbell said.

Fortunately, Penn State has a meat market that’s open to the public every Friday, during the school year.

The first half of the program will be held in Penn State’s Meats Lab. Students will get 10-15 hours of classroom instruction and between 15-20 hours of hands-on training, said Dan Brockett, a Penn State Extension community development educator.

The school will cover everything from humane handling and slaughter, fabrication of wholesale and retail fresh meats, sausage processing, poultry processing, marketing, regulatory issues and guidance and business management.

The second half of the program is an externship experience with privately-owned butcher shops that are partnering with the school. Brockett said this will be a time for students to pursue a particular interest and work that into a final project, like creating a new sausage recipe or trying a new way of marketing.

Students will be paid for both the hands on training and the externship phase of the program, Brockett said.

The goal is that by the end of the 10-month program, students will be ready to step right into a job at a butcher or processing plant.

They had about 50 people apply and accepted only five for the pilot program, which will begin in January.

That’s a pretty small class size for a school, but Campbell said it’s necessary to be able to work with the students in the way they need to.

“If those five create five more jobs because they open a shop or build more opportunity, that starts to be both qualitative and quantitative impact,” Campbell said.

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be contacted at 800-837-3419 or rachel@farmanddairy.com.)

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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