Tough times for some trades

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Are skilled butchers and bakers going the way of candlestick makers?

Bill Ible thinks so. A butcher at Vancouver's Windsor Packing on South Main, he's worked in the trade for 43 years. When he started at Windsor 18 years ago, Ible worked alongside 27 other butchers who processed 20 sides of beef on a Monday morning. Now the shop employs five full-time and three part-time butchers, with Ible as the only old-timer left.

"Back then, we had a full-time sausage maker who worked on cold meats and smoking," he said during an interview in the shop's break room. "That's all gone.”¦Now you can put sirloin into a machine, push a few buttons, and it will cut it into perfectly sized New York steaks."

Bakers face the same situation. Reached by phone, Paul Hetherington, president of the Baking Association of Canada, said that due to companies hiring for less skilled positions, trained bakers rarely find jobs that compensate them for the time and money they've invested.

"I asked [one of our members] who was looking to hire people what qualifications they need, and they said, 'A heartbeat,'" Hetherington said.

Aaron Pighin was one of the last students enrolled in Vancouver Community College's meat-cutting program, which was scrapped in June 2002 because of low enrollment. In a coffee-shop interview, he said the course was relatively cheap and short, and after graduation he quickly found a job in a retail shop–though not for long.

"I was working in a shop where everything was already cut," he said. "I felt I wasn't using my skills to their full potential. I had spent money and time at school and wanted to use those skills."

Keeping skilled workers like Pighin is a problem for both industries, as many former students become discouraged by the long hours, hard work, repetitive tasks, and low wages, and switch to another industry. After four-and-a-half years in the trade, Pighin decided to move on, and he is now studying forestry at BCIT. "The forestry industry is huge here, and there's a shortage of workers. The pay is quite high," he said. "I think students coming out of high school now have the whole world at their fingertips. I don't think being a butcher or a baker will cut it."

Faced with a retirement "bubble" and labour shortages, the federal and provincial governments have been sponsoring programs designed to promote the trades as interesting and lucrative career choices.

According to the Vancouver-based Industry Training Authority–a provincial agency responsible for trades apprenticeship programs–the number of active trainees in the province has increased remarkably across industries. One ITA–issued May 10, 2006, news release stated that apprentice trainees had increased by 80 percent since 2004.

In B.C., the ITA found that on December 31, 2004, 98 people were training to become bakers and 43 to become meat cutters. On January 31, 2007, 168 people were registered as baking trainees and 72 as meat- cutter trainees.

However, the nature of the jobs has changed. Increased mechanization in both industries has resulted in the deskilling of many tasks: machines now mix bread dough or slice meat. B.C.'s Work Futures Web site, a joint federal-provincial information resource that collects industry profiles (www.workfutures.bc.ca/), notes increasing numbers of "retail-ready" meat cuts are being shipped into B.C. from the U.S. and Alberta, outpacing the province's growing demand for meat products.

It also notes that workers in the industry have been affected by job and wage cuts. B.C. now has only a few small meatpacking plants, which primarily hire machine operators and very few trained meat cutters. In supermarkets, Windsor Packing's Ible said, large unionized meat-cutting staffs have been largely replaced by a couple of in-store butchers.

The same situation applies for bakers. During a phone interview, Parry Robinson, the head of Vancouver Community College's baking department, said that rather than using a variety of skills, bakers repeat the same simple tasks over and over again.

"You don't need a lot of qualified workers to get the product ready," he said. "People are working in bakeries, but are they bakers? What if all someone does is scoop apple-pie filling from a bucket?"

Robinson said a large wedding-cake manufacturing company once contacted the school to post an ad. He said the employer was looking for someone with baking, design, and decorating experience who was able to lead a team of decorators, and who had customer-service skills–and the position started at $8.25 an hour.

"At that rate, you can get a much easier job that has a lot less responsibility," he said. "Employers are taking advantage of people."

In B.C., according to Work Futures' census data and industry sources, bakers earn an average of only $21,424 annually–compared to an overall provincial average of $32,080–while butchers earn $25,100. Though wages increase as time passes, things are tough, especially for students who have loans to pay back.

In Canada, baking is an apprenticed trade in five provinces, and as a result, bakers can write an exam to gain the journeyman designation. However, anyone is free to take that exam, and anyone is also free to call him or herself an apprentice baker. The industry is unlikely to support mandatory certification, since workers would demand more money to offset the training, Robinson said.

At Vancouver's Terra Breads, head baker Mary MacKay said young employees often ask her for advice on whether or not to go to school. In a phone interview, she said that training programs offer a good basis of technical knowledge but there is no direct relationship between levels of education and wages.

"There's not a huge wage jump if someone goes to school," she said. "A lot of students feel discouraged, since the costs of school are so high and they come out and are hired at minimum wage."

Despite these problems, enrollment in VCC's baking program has grown substantially. Robinson said classes are full and have a six-month waiting list.

Kamloops-based Thompson Rivers University still offers a nine-month full-time meat-cutting program. Instructor Ken Jakes, who's worked in the trade for 45 years, said the 18-person classes have been consistently full since 1995, except last year, when enrollment dropped. Students are passionate and able to find jobs quickly, he said, but many are pushed away from the trade by low wages, long days, shift work, and tough working conditions.

"There's so much competition since people can earn a lot of money in the oil-and-gas and construction [trades]," he said in a phone interview. "People don't have to go to school [for those jobs]."

One solution for trained bakers is to work for small "artisan" bakeries. The future of butchers may also be in more specialized products. Work Futures notes that although overall retail employment is declining, an increasing number of small butcher shops cater to a growing demand for specialty meats. As well, Jakes said that the Canadian Professional Meat Cutters Association is working with the Alberta government and other groups to promote the meat industry through initiatives like www.meatforce.ca/.

"It's a really great trade to be in," he said. "While traditionally the trade was faced with low wages and fast-paced demand”¦wages are starting to go up."

Still, it's tough for many new butchers to get excited. Pighin remembers going on a field trip to a meatpacking plant and watching the machines slicing the cuts and pumping out hundreds of sausages an hour.

"It crossed my mind this will be the future of the trade," he said. "I thought, 'How will I be in demand if this continues?”¦Why would [an employer] pick me if I'm not using my skills?'"