The poultry industry is big business, yet it’s struggling to meet labor demands at all levels — manual, skilled and management.
As the U.S. economy continues to grow and unemployment dwindles, labor scarcity and wage inflation threaten the rural economy and put additional stress on the profitability of the agriculture industry at a time of depressed commodity prices.
Manual laborers are chasing higher wages offered in industries such as transportation, construction, hospitality and mining, forcing agriculture employers to increase wages at a faster rate to compete, according to a new study from CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division.
“From the egg farm, to the feed level, to birdhouses, to bird health management and egg marketing, there’s great opportunity,” says Allison Brink, executive director at Michigan Allied Poultry Industries (MAPI). “And then there’s the manure side — selling the product, which is a whole business onto itself.
"Our goal is to encourage more young people to pursue careers in Michigan’s poultry industry, so that we continue to have a strong pipeline of young talent. We want to make sure college students understand this is a growing industry with tons of potential, and that there are all types of jobs in this industry, from working on the farm to tech and engineering jobs, as well as business careers with partners and suppliers.”
Jill Cords, career consultant inside Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, says students are being recruited for summer 2020 internships in the fall semester at career fairs and through the online job posting system called Handshake. “Poultry in animal sciences is one of the top salaries for graduating seniors,” she says.
According to a report compiled with information gathered from 18 agricultural colleges across the nation, including MSU and the University of Wisconsin, the entry-level salary for 2018-19 graduates in the poultry industry averages $49,431, with a low of $40,000 and a high of $68,500.
“The labor market is good despite a depressed ag economy,” Cords says. “In poultry, swine and other animal sciences, there are tons of opportunities. Businesses are seeking more students than we have in the programs.”
The poultry industry is big business, with no sign of demand waning. According to USDA, Americans each eat an average of 94 pounds of poultry per year, up from only 28 pounds in 1960.
The Michigan Senate voted to delay the requirements for all hens to be housed in cage-free facilities until 2025. This has been a topic of debate not only for the poultry industry but also for the swine industry for many years.
Michigan already has 56% of its egg production being produced by cage-free hens, with an estimated 62% of production by the end of 2020. The extension would give producers until 2025 to comply with the remaining portion of their production and aligns with the retail and restaurant industries' commitment to buy only cage-free eggs beginning in 2025.
The conversion to cage-free production has necessitated producers’ substantial investment in facilities to remain in compliance with the regulation.
Brandon Leep, vice president of commercial lending for GreenStone, sees positive outcomes from the recent changes, "The investments illustrate farmers dedication to the poultry industry for many years to come," he says. "With the new builds, there is also new technology integrated into the facilities. This is a great opportunity for new employees entering the workforce, not only offering the opportunity to work for an industry that is dedicated to long-term viability, but also to apply their technology career skills to agriculture."
The USDA’s Economic Research Service forecasts that 2019 broiler production will be up 1.7% in 2018 at an estimated 43.370 billion pounds. Turkey production will total 5.905 billion pounds, up 0.5%. Michigan ranks sixth in the nation in the production of eggs.
There are eight farm owners with a combined 15.8 million laying hens on 17 farms producing 394 million eggs in 2018, according to USDA.
“Herbrucks is the 11th-largest egg producer in the country, and 25th-largest in the world with 900 employees in Ionia County,” Brink says.
There are 20 broiler producers in Michigan producing 6.2 million birds. Wisconsin has a smaller presence in the egg industry — with 6.1 million layers producing 161 million eggs in 2018 — but has 55.8 million broilers, according to USDA.
So, what is being done to attract more talent?
The U.S. Poultry Foundation College Student Career Program connects hundreds of talented, bright college students seeking professions in the poultry industry with human resource managers and recruiters, Cords says. She says it is the most efficient and effective way for the poultry industry to find managers of the future, and it has been a vital part of many companies' hiring processes for nearly 50 years. It is one of the largest career events of its kind for students seeking professions in the industry.
Held annually during the International Production & Processing Expo, this program allows producer-member companies of U.S. Poultry and its IPPE partners — the North America Meat Institute and the American Feed Industry Association, as well as allied companies — to arrange interviews with top students from many universities at one time, at one location.
The three-day program, held in Atlanta in January, is 100% funded by the U.S. Poultry Foundation.
Hannah Campbell, a senior animal science major at Michigan State University with a minor in plant, animal and microbial biotechnology, is a two-time president of MSU’s Avian Science Club.
“Our club is growing, and we are very active in IPPE,” she says. “We normally have somewhere between 10 to 15 students attend, but this year we may have upward of 20. Just like businesses, students can reach out for interviews.”
Campbell has attended IPPE for two years and has walked away with summer internships, and most recently job offers, which she is considering as she prepares to graduate in May.
She also is a graduate of the Midwest Poultry Consortium’s Center of Excellence Scholarship and Internship Program. Students in this program take six weeks of summer courses, normally hosted by the University of Wisconsin, but for 2020, the program will be at Iowa State. In those six weeks, students take three poultry-focused classes and earn nine credits. In the second part of the summer, students complete paid internships in the poultry industry.
The credits earned during the summer transfer back to a student’s home university to be used toward a poultry science emphasis to go along with his or her elected major.
“Students can apply for partial or full scholarships, but must intern with a sponsoring company,” Campbell says. “It’s a great opportunity to network with industry professionals who are brought in as speakers.” A total of 480 students have gone through the program, and 242 have earned a poultry science emphasis by completing both years of the program.
Another effort to connect emerging talent with industry needs is offered through MAPI. In 2018, the organization made a commitment to begin providing scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students actively pursuing a career focused on poultry.
Brink says those requesting the scholarship must also have completed a summer internship in the year that they are applying for scholarship funds.
Interns receive on-farm training and learn in-depth skills. Brink says most farms are vertically integrated and students will see operations at many levels. Students will train alongside a mentor and work independently to develop skills while accomplishing daily tasks, she adds.
At the completion of the internship, both the farm and the student complete surveys about their experience. Campbell, who has promoted the industry through social media and other means, continues to recruit incoming freshmen and hopes the club will continue to expand.
“If you want a job in the poultry industry, you are basically guaranteed,” she says. “While, at that time, it may not be exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, but there is a lot of room for growth and movement.”