A shortage of qualified meat cutters is leaving small butcher shops in rural communities desperate for help. Two southern Minnesota colleges launched pilot programs introducing a new generation of meat cutters to the craft.
On a recent weekday, staff at Carlson Meats in Grove City, Minn., were busy getting orders ready for customers. In the back, carcasses hung in the coolers as white-clad staff trimmed different cuts of meat.
Store manager Jesse Weseman constantly needs more workers to tackle the never-ending flow of orders.
“It’s homemade,” Weseman said about the store’s product. “Everyone thinks homemade cooking is better. So, the sausage sticks (we) make them here, and it’s just better than mass produced meat.”
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Carlson’s been running at full capacity with its small shop, processing 18 to 19 beef animals and about 20 hogs a month. In recent years, many small-town butchers retired and their stores closed. Weseman worries about such businesses disappearing from rural communities if new generations don’t get into the craft.
“It’s an art that’s dying,” Weseman said. “It’s basically a dying breed.”
In 2021, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development reported about 170 openings for butchers and meat cutters statewide. That represents more than seven percent of all meat cutting jobs in Minnesota and a higher-than-usual job vacancy rate.
New training programs
Two schools in Minnesota launched a pilot program offering meat cutting training — Ridgewater College in Willmar and Central Lakes College in Brainerd.
There's eight students enrolled in the first semester through Ridgewater. Program instructor Sophia Thommes, hears from butchers and processing plants about the desperate need for skilled staff, and some have already expressed interest in hiring these students.
“I get calls weekly from all over Minnesota, even into Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska or in North Dakota, saying they want employees,” Thommes said. “They want cutters and they want them to go through this program.”
The demand for meat isn’t slowing. The state economic development department reports the animal slaughtering and processing sector is projected to see a 3.7 percent growth from 2020 to 2030 ranging from hometown lockers to large packing plants.
No established training pipeline
There’s no established training pipeline for butchers and meat cutters in Minnesota. DEED labor market analyst Luke Greiner said it’ll take time to see the direct impact on the region with the college’s meat cutter training programs.
“I probably wouldn’t be concerned about whether these graduates are going to be able to find a job, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. It looks like there’s plenty of opportunities, way more openings than what these colleges are able to produce,” Greiner said. “I think the big barrier to these types of programs really making a statewide impact is going to be the amount of students they can get into the program and graduate.”
For some of the students, this is more than about just getting a job.
Justice Wahid Cotton is from Willmar. He works in a growing East African and South Asian community. He said there’s a lack of meat lockers offering cuts used in traditional ethnic cuisines in a rapidly diversifying region. He sees it as an untapped market.
Cotton hopes to eventually start his own business with the skills he learned and eventually get into raising pigs himself. He said the program can become “a reflection of the very diverse population that we have in the state of Minnesota.”
“I think that's one of the things that I think really could come out of this program is eventually like a new class of butchers or processing facilities that have different ambitions other than like your traditional meat locker,” he added.
Fellow student Barbara Horsch of New Ulm sees meat cutting as a third career after having owned restaurants herself. Horsch plans to apply for meat cutting jobs once she completes the program and give very busy butchers a helping hand.
“There’s no lull,” Horsch said. “There is going to be no lull. There is not going to be a day or a week or a month where we’re not going to be butchering something. It’s that demanding.”
Having students like Cotton and Horsch makes Weseman optimistic about the training programs and the young meat cutters they train.
“Even if we get 10 of them in this area, that’d be huge,” he said. “We got to break into the next generation.”
In the meantime, Weseman's still got that long list of orders — including for processing a lot of deer from hunting season. He's not making any promises on how fast people will get their deer sticks.