by Stephen Wagner

“For some years now, Penn State has been focused on growing labor shortages,” said Sara Gligora, a special assistant in workforce development and central regional director at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. “PDA has been looking at addressing issues at all levels, from youth all the way up to adult and dislocated workers, and workers looking for a career change.”

In 2018, the PDA, with support from the Team PA Foundation, commissioned an economic impact study. It provides a baseline analysis of PA’s ag industry. Broadening workforce development factors heavily into that equation. “An especially important part of the report was the review of future impacts which includes an assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on PA agriculture, and priorities for recovery,” Gligora said.

One of the biggest takeaways from the report is the need to focus on course development and labor development. In every roundtable discussion, it was agreed that the largest long-term problem for PA agriculture is the inability to attract and retain high quality workers. To provide more opportunities for hands-on training and education in ag-related fields, the department has also been focused on growing and expanding training programs such as apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship. Collaborations with other state agencies and stakeholders have helped PDA elevate ag workforce issues that may have gone unaddressed.

Dan Eichenlaub is president of Eichenlaub Inc. He said, “It’s too big for any one organization or association to take on. It’s people like Sara who try to bring us all together and make this work and help solve this problem. Why is this so important? If you don’t have people, you can’t do it. If we train our people, we get better production out of them, better quality workmanship, fewer rejects and retention. People are going to tend to stay with the company that is investing in them, thereby making them feel they have a career.” What’s exciting about Eichenlaub is that they were the first to sign up three years ago in the Keystone State.

He mentioned specifically Megan, “the first woman in the whole country to complete the apprenticeship,” said Eichenlaub, as well as “Zach, who so enjoyed the apprenticeship that he decided to go on to Penn State in the four-year landscape and contracting major.”

The final thing Eichenlaub discussed was the engagement he’s had with Penn State around workforce development. “We’re all aware of many certifications out there,” he said. “One that touches many of us might be pesticide licensing, where you get a certification that’s required by the state to apply pesticides, and you need to continue to have continuing education training in order to keep that license up.”

An associate professor and instructor of Penn State’s relatively new Extension Butcher School, Dr. Jonathan Campbell said, “I know how long it has taken me to learn a brief portion of what I know compared to somebody who’s been in the industry for 30 or 40 years. So we started working together and what we did was to take the Extension short course model, something you can learn in two days, three days or even a week, and flip that onto its head. That’s the kind of program that I was used to using. Granted, our targeted audience was different.”

Meat processing for many reasons has been absorbed into other areas, like a culinary program. Because of a lack of infrastructure, or funding, the facilities to keep the hands-on portion of meat-cutting, butchering and further meat processing just don’t exist in the U.S. much anymore. “Much of that has gone by the wayside,” noted Campbell, “and people are just training on the job, solely, without any experience. That’s just coming into a position that may be open.”

The university is responsible for what the curriculum is, keeping track of who the apprentices are, who the business partners are and how you get in with meat processors all over the U.S. “We thought we were poised to be able to do that,” Campbell stated. “Penn State should be the sponsor for this program. Individuals that were in the apprenticeship program were actually paid employees, albeit part-time, who were going to school part-time because they were getting hands-on work experience. What we created for the sponsorship was 350 hours of ‘education’ and two years and 3,000 hours of work experience, working with one of our business partners.”