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Is a Career in Butchery for you?

Pat Whelan, a fifth generation butcher, is managing director of James Whelan Butchers, that does nose-to-tail butchery from its own farm. The business has shops in Clonmel, Kilmaconogue in Co Wicklow, Avoca in Monkstown and Rathcoole in Co Dublin.

The business currently has 10 positions available across four locations. “There are opportunities across the business for those with qualifications, those interested in getting involved and those who want to improve their butchery skills,” explains Pat. “Most start at trainee level which pays €10 an hour, with a graduated apprentice rate which increases up to €13 per hour.”

James Whelan Butchers provides an 18-month training programme with an accredited FETAC qualification on completion. Pat feels that those who go on to work in this area should have an emotive connection with the trade. “Someone who grew up on a farm, enjoys livestock and nurturing animals, or maybe goes shooting, has a great appreciation. Anyone who’s interested in nature really. You could be living in the city, in Dublin.”

However, while Pat says there’s more interest in food, and marginally more interest in butchery, he says it’s still difficult to get the right people for the job.

Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland Apprentices

John Hickey is CEO of the Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland (ACBI) which, among its many roles and responsibilities, is the accrediting body nationally for accreditation and training of butchers. The ACBI currently has 60 people a year going through its training scheme, which is a QQI (formerly FETAC) Level 5 programme that’s been running for 15 years.

John says there aren’t enough skilled apprentices coming through to fill up the vacancies in butchers’ shops across the country. “We did a review ourselves. We had an outside consultant come in to work with us and take a look at butchery training. Of those coming through, 85% were from families who were already in the business. In terms of attracting people outside the tradition, it wasn’t happening. It’s so specialised that if they did it and didn’t like it, what would they do?

The appeal wasn’t broad enough. It’s also difficult to get people for the abttoirs – you’ll find those doing it are from families where the tradition is retained.”

It’s not surprising then that the association is looking at developing a butchery apprenticeship in line with the overall Government review and development of apprenticeships that has been taking place in recent years.

The Apprenticeship Council was launched by the Minister for Education last November and one of its tasks is the expansion of apprenticeships into new sectors of the economy, and mapping out the sectors where apprenticeships can make a real difference to employers and employees.

The ACBI has submitted an apprenticeship for review by the Council, which it developed in conjunction with UCC, Teagasc and Louth & Meath Enterprise Training Board (LMETB). “The butchery business has changed to become a platform for excellence in fresh food,” says John Hickey. “Training in butchery skills will in the whole area of food innovation, food presentation, food quality and provenance. We have a vision of creating a centre of excellence for butchery training within Europe in Ireland.”

Butchery – an evolved skill

The current butchery training programme run by the ACBI takes place at the Teagac Food Centre in Ashtown, Dublin. The ACBI has been based at this site for four years, with John Hickey noting that Teagasc has been a huge support. While there are occasional classes in Ashtown, most of the work – the technical material – is done online, but the key part – the core meat skills – is done at the shop.

This element is audited by a network of trainers that travel around to shops all over the country. “All the appropriate equipment is in Ashtown,” says John Hickey. “We’re perfectly located and we’ve amazing facilities. We’re able to bring someone through a fully functioning abattoir, so we’re blessed to have that facility.” “I would love to see a butchery school opened which combines the classroom environment with the on-the-job,” says Pat Whelan.

“You don’t get that same quality output if you don’t know the theory as well as the practical. What I would love to see happen ... is a school along the lines of what Ballymaloe is to cookery – a school on a farm. You would gain an understanding of slaughter, environment and the value of each cut of meat.

“It’s about developing an interest. Investment in people gives you the return.” John Hickey would like to see butchery go the way chef training has gone. He notes that being a chef wasn’t always the popular career that it is now and that “in the United States the celebrity butcher has replaced the celebrity chef. There’s a convergence of skills”.

The butchery craft that we have in Ireland today is perhaps one that is not fully appreciated by everyone. While it’s a skill that is quite evolved in some countries (like France), in many countries it simply isn’t there.

The Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland has “tours coming in from all over the place” to learn from Ireland’s butchery trade. The ACBI was invited to present Irish butchery skills at Food Russia in December, an event which focused on Russian food retailers.

Furthermore, a supermarket chain in Kazakhstan sent some of its employees to Ireland to learn about butchery.

The general manger of that food supermarlet chain will be over later this summer. According to John Hickey, Kazakhstan currently doesn’t do added value for meat products, so by learning how to do this in Ireland this supermarket chain is giving itself a unique selling point in Kazakhstan.

Article published on May 14th 2015 

Article by: Mary Phelan ~ The Irish Farmers Journal