How to train to be a butcher in B.C.
Phil Pollard has been a butcher for 30 years, and during that time he’s witnessed some shifts in his profession. The assistant meat manager at Stong’s Market (4560 Dunbar Street) is proud that his workplace still employs in-house butchers like himself, but he says this isn’t the case with most big supermarkets these days. “A lot of the chains don’t do any cutting anymore. All the cutting is done at a warehouse,” he explains by phone. Yet aspiring butchers need not despair. Pollard says jobs can now also be found in the small, independent butcher shops that have recently sprung up across the city.
Pollard often takes under his wing apprentices who are working to gain meat-cutter certification from B.C.’s Industry Training Authority (ITA). Currently, 80 people are working toward meat-cutter certification, a number that has roughly doubled over the last five years. And while a person isn’t required to have certification in order to work as a meat cutter in B.C., it can be beneficial for job searches and pay rates. Industry newbies head to Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in Kamloops for their ITA technical training. The program involves completing two levels of training, finding an employer sponsor, earning 4,500 hours of work-based training, and writing a final qualification exam.
At TRU, there are two routes for completing the training required by the ITA. In the first option, apprentices study the Level I meat-cutting curriculum (January to February every year), which covers topics like sanitation, safety, and refrigeration, as well as pork, lamb, poultry, and seafood processing, inspection, and grading. If successful, apprentices go on to complete Level II (February to March), which includes an advanced module in value-added processing (i.e., bacon and ham curing, fresh sausage processing), and modules in business-related math and customer service practices.
The second option involves students enrolling in TRU’s more rigorous nine-month, full-time retail meat processing program, which every year accepts a maximum of 18 students for a late-August start date. (A few spots are still available in this year’s intake.) This option is more suited to students who have little to no experience with meat cutting, since Level I covers the curriculum quickly and assumes a certain amount of industry knowledge. During a phone chat, instructor Corey Davison says, “Interest is high and continuing to grow, predominantly because of the way people are now eating. People want clean, local meat. We train straight from the carcass. We don’t bring in boxed meat.” Instead, most of the meat comes from nearby Mitchell Cattle Co.
The program consists of nine courses and covers everything from meat science to meat-packaging methods. Students get further hands-on experience at the school’s retail store and two three-week work placements. Graduates of the program will have earned 830 apprenticeship hours, as well as credit for the ITA’s Level I training before moving on to Level II.
Davison explains that lately, demand for his graduates has been “out of control”. They’ve found jobs in meat-processing plants and supermarkets, as well as small butcher shops such as Two Rivers Specialty Meats in North Vancouver.
Vancouver Community College had a program, but according to Settimio Sicoli, assistant department head in Culinary Arts, it was scrapped in 2002 due to employers scooping up students before graduation. He adds, however, that he recommends people get formal training for the “full spectrum” of skills.
Patrick Harkness Lait, owner of Harkness & Co. Butchers (666 East Broadway), did his training at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary. He sees more indie shops popping up these days and is curious to see if the trend holds over the long term.
While he enjoys his craft, he cautions that it’s physically demanding: “You have to be fairly fit. You’re handling a lot of weight, and you’re gripping and pushing and pulling. The smell of sawing bone isn’t the best when you’re hung-over.”
Harkness Lait adds that, unlike in trades such as plumbing that can be quite lucrative, pay rates for butchers are sometimes disappointing. “It’s a specialized skill, but it doesn’t pay that well,” he explains by phone. He says that newbies make around $14 to $18 an hour, while veterans top out at about $26 to $28 an hour.
Five years ago, Buy-Low Foods (various locations) set up its own meat apprenticeship program to counteract flagging interest in the profession. “For a while, the industry was having trouble attracting people to it. We wanted to offer something internally to attract our current employees to it,” says Sam Corea, director of retail operations, during a phone chat.
Annually, the store canvasses employees across B.C. and Alberta and selects four to eight people for the year-long program. Besides being willing to relocate, employees need to have good math skills, solid verbal and written English communication, physical strength and dexterity, and an overall interest and willingness to learn.
Once accepted, employees go through a series of modules, such as meat-cutting techniques, calculating gross margin, and preparing value-added products. Corea feels that at the end of the day the program is a worthwhile investment for Buy-Low: “A lot of companies have gone to central cutting. We, however, want to offer our customers the opportunity to talk to a meat cutter and gain knowledge that way.” This interaction breeds further respect from consumers for the professionals in meat departments and butcher shops, who have trained hard in order to master their craft.