Poultry house

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If you are in ninth grade and know that you want to graduate from high school and go straight from the classroom to a job in the poultry industry, congratulations. There are plenty of jobs waiting for you. Those entry-level jobs typically offer good pay and room for advancement, according to Paul Patterson, a Penn State professor of poultry science.

If, instead, you want to go on to college and decide you want to major in poultry and avian science, congratulations again. Nearly 100% of Penn State’s poultry and avian science majors have jobs lined up the day they graduate, with starting salaries ranging from $42,500 to $55,000.

But who knows in ninth grade that they want to make chickens their life’s work?

We grow up knowing about the visible jobs that are all around us. Police officer, truck driver, nurse, veterinarian, actor, teacher, pilot, Taylor Swift. But young people are generally not inclined to drill down through career choices to things like water quality technician, nurse anesthetist or poultry marketing rep.

On a personal note, when I was going into ninth grade, my possible career list consisted of preacher, farmer or forest ranger. I happened to be good with words, so I became a reporter instead of one of those. If I had it to do all over again I would have become an agronomist. It would have been the perfect job — lots of science, lots of time outdoors, a bit of lab work, physical labor, dirty boots, dirty hands, talking to farmers and seed reps. Who wouldn’t like that?

But I didn’t know. In ninth grade I could spell “agronomy” — because I was good with words — but I had no idea what an agronomist was because I was a town kid who couldn’t tell clover from alfalfa.

I wasn’t exposed to agronomy, or even dimly aware that it was a career path. Today’s town kids are probably as in the dark as I was about ag careers. FFA and 4-H students are at least aware that people work with crops, cows and chickens, but most are probably not aware of the variety of careers in those fields.

Poultry jobs, how to get young people interested in them, and how to hire them were the focus of a Penn State Extension webinar presented Aug. 5 by Paul Patterson and Phillip Clauer. Patterson is a professor of poultry science at Penn State. Clauer teaches poultry science too, and also coaches the Penn State collegiate poultry judging team.

Patterson began his presentation with an agricultural jobs pyramid developed by Scott Sheely when he worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. At the top of the pyramid are the scientific, engineering and management jobs that take a lot of training and experience. Veterinarians, agronomists and loan officers are some of the people who fill these jobs.

Technical jobs, midlevel in the pyramid, include equipment techs, drone pilots and hydroponic specialists.

Production workers form the base of the pyramid, and the base supports everything above it. They include farmworkers, equipment operators, landscapers, butchers and bakers.

“There’s a tremendous demand for production workers in our poultry companies. Yes, we need technical people a step up the pyramid, and scientists, engineers, veterinarians and others with a great deal of training at the apex,” Patterson said. “But the workers at the base of this pyramid are the foundations on which our poultry companies are built.”

He sees great promise in apprenticeship programs that encourage beginning workers to go into ag careers.

In 2017, the Pennsylvania Legislature created the 15-member Commission for Agricultural Education Excellence. The state has approved a few formal apprenticeship programs for agricultural careers, including farm equipment technicians and dairy grazing.

The Pennsylvania Outdoor Corps is a state-run training program aimed at developing the next generation of conservation workers and leaders. It is modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.

Rose Acres and Sanderson Farms, the second-and third-largest poultry producers in the U.S., are both constantly in need of new workers. They use social media like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter to get the word out about the business. Company representatives attend career fairs, and reach out to ag and vo-tech teachers and students. They host tours of company facilities, Patterson said.

One of the most innovative and ambitious get-to-know-your-chicken projects was begun in 2016 by Frank Robinson, a longtime poultry science professor at University of Alberta. Robinson founded and coordinates three-day mini internships for teams of two to four students, timed for their fall and spring breaks. Each team spends its first internship day in a hatchery, the second day with a breeder flock, and the third day on a broiler farm.

Since 2016, 299 students have participated in the internships at 109 sites.

Phillip Clauer spends a lot of his time working with students both before they get to Penn State and once they’re enrolled. As coach of the university’s poultry judging team, he has seen his members capture the team of the year award from the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association nine of the past 17 years. The club’s scrapbook has been judged best in the U.S. for 23 of the past 25 years.

Many of the university’s poultry science students have grown up with programs that Clauer either initiated or has taken on since he arrived in State College in 2006. His philosophy is to work with programs that youths enjoy. In one of his presentation slides, he said young people enjoy raising and showing their poultry. And they like hands-on learning exercises.

Clauer said he has worked with 4-H leaders and teachers to expand market bird competitions, where young people raise meat birds rather than fancy breeds for showing and marketing. There’s an egg-to-egg program where participants receive eggs of a specific layer breed, then hatch the eggs, raise the chicks and finally harvest the eggs in a kind of closed circle project that gives kids exposure to every part of their chickens’ life cycles, Clauer said.

He used much of his presentation time talking about the interview process from both the applicant’s and the company’s point of view. Whether they’re hiring high school or college graduates, companies are looking for people with good a work ethic and who are dependable and trustworthy.

Today’s job applicants are looking for a place to start, but they also want room to grow, Clauer said. They want to work with positive people, they don’t want a job that demands a 24/7 commitment, and they want to live somewhere with the potential for a life outside of work.

Recent graduates who plan to enter the poultry industry generally have a number of career choices, Clauer said, and it behooves companies looking for new employees to treat applicants with dignity and respect.

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