1120 Apprenticeship

Wendal Hurst, 17, a pre-apprentice technician, works on a machine Monday at Binkley & Hurst in Lititz, Pa. In the past few years, Pennsylvania has approved seven apprenticeships and two pre-apprenticeships related to agriculture, including the equipment technician program.

Starting a career in agriculture is getting easier as Pennsylvania embraces apprenticeships for in-demand jobs with specialized skills.

“Apprenticeships are not new in terms of a practice or an approach, but they are new to agriculture,” said Russell Redding, the state’s ag secretary.

Creating apprenticeship programs has been a key part of Redding’s ag workforce development strategy since he returned to the Ag Department in 2015. The state estimates 75,000 ag jobs will need to be filled over the next decade due to retirements and the creation of new high-tech positions.

During Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, Pennsylvania has approved seven ag-related apprenticeships — for agricultural equipment technicians, dairy grazing, butchering, diversified vegetable production, landscape management, and groundskeeping.

The equipment technician and vegetable programs also offer pre-apprenticeships, which act as feeder or preparatory programs for apprenticeships.

The Ag Department hosted an online panel discussion Monday to highlight the new opportunities and to mark the start of National Apprenticeship Week.

“It takes a little while to familiarize both the public and also the employer community to apprenticeships,” Redding said.

Produce farms have been using the term “apprentice” informally for some time to describe their most enterprising summer workers.

But Pennsylvania’s official apprenticeships are registered and approved by the Department of Labor and Industry.

Apprentices are most familiar in trades like carpentry and plumbing, but the format is the same for any field.

An apprenticeship is a paid job that may include raises as the participant advances. The training combines classroom instruction with hands-on experience.

The apprentice receives mentorship from pros in the field along the way and finishes with a credential that other employers will recognize — though many stay with the company where they completed their apprenticeship.

For workers, an apprenticeship provides a clear route to enter a career. For employers, it creates a pipeline for skilled, enthusiastic workers.

“It’s an earn-while-you-learn concept,” said Joseph Bass, a rep for the Department of Labor and Industry who helps organizations develop apprenticeship programs.

Morgan Livingston, a fifth-generation farmer from Indiana County, is a member of Penn State’s first class of apprentice butchers. Livingston said the program has given her a great foundation in food safety, meat science and value-added products.

Livingston has been working at T&E Meats in Harrisonburg, Virginia, since May. At the end of the year, she plans to return to her family’s Mahoning Creek Farm to expand livestock production and eventually open a processing operation.

“If I didn’t have so many plans for the farm business, I would definitely consider staying here,” Livingston said. “I would see a future for myself at T&E, for sure.”

While farming, Livingston expects to continue working part time as a butcher to continue honing her skills. She said her new knowledge helps her to speak intelligently to the butchers that serve her farm, and to consider ways her farming practices lead to a quality final cut of meat.

Livingston’s advice to potential apprentices is to realize the work may upend their assumptions.

“There may be things that you thought were a certain way,” Livingston said. “You may get the opportunity to see different types of businesses that do the same type of work but do it differently.”

Penn State started its butcher apprenticeship program last year. Even before the pandemic caused disruptions at meat plants, skilled meat cutters were in short supply.

The apprenticeship includes training at Penn State’s Meat Lab followed by work at a commercial butcher shop. It’s not common for the first half of an apprenticeship to be on a college campus, but Campbell said this was the best way to inculcate food safety and worker safety practices.

Also, if an apprentice decides that working in the cold and standing on concrete all day isn’t for them, the person will drop out without burdening a for-profit employer, Campbell said.

Still, as with any apprenticeship, the butcher program focuses on hands-on training in specific skills.

“It’s impossible to teach someone that has zero experience how to sharpen a knife, how to fabricate a beef carcass, or to perhaps manufacture sausage over a computer,” said Jonathan Campbell, an organizer of the butcher apprenticeship.

Butcher apprentices start at $14 an hour and work their way up to $20 an hour by the end of the program.

Dan Eichenlaub, president of Pittsburgh-area landscaping company Eichenlaub Inc., said apprenticeships could also help address his industry’s long-running labor needs.

Post-9/11 immigration policies have sometimes disrupted access to foreign landscaping workers, and parents of graduating high school seniors don’t see great career prospects in their children taking jobs as mulch-laying grunts.

An apprenticeship, though, suggests marketable skills, and Eichenlaub said the term resonates with parents, many of whom went through apprenticeships for electrical or HVAC work themselves.

After Eichenlaub’s first two apprentices completed their training, they moved on — one to manage the athletic turf at a university, the other to get further training. But Eichenlaub is hopeful that both will eventually return to the company, or at least be successful in the industry.

“Here are two young people who really got onto a career path, and I couldn’t be more happy for them,” he said.

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