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Harrisburg, PA – In Centre County, Suzie Birchfield joined the Butcher Apprenticeship Program when she realized she wanted a new career. Raised on a poultry farm in Juniata County, Suzie pursued post-secondary education and taught elementary school, but a career in meat processing was always on her mind.

When COVID-19 hit, she realized it was an opportunity to change careers and join an industry in need of skilled workers. She enrolled in Penn State's Meats Lab's Butcher Apprenticeship. Today, she is the first female to work on the processing floor at Peachy Foods in Belleville, Pa. with aspirations to one day own her shop.   

Including the Centre County program, Pennsylvania has seven state-certified agriculture apprenticeship programs and two pre-apprenticeships. During a tour, State Agricultural Secretary Russell Reading honored these programs and National Apprenticeship Week, which took place last week. 

"Pennsylvania's agricultural workforce is key to ensuring food goes from farm gate to the dinner plate. As we hit the road for National Apprenticeship Week, we are reminded how skilled agricultural labor is essential for the functionality of our food system at every step of the supply chain," said Redding. "Apprenticeship programs are training the next generation of food and agriculture workers for in-demand, competitive jobs."

Pennsylvania has long faced an agricultural workforce shortage, especially in farming and technology-based roles. Apprentices are the future of the industry. Through paid, hands-on training, apprentices earn affordable skillsets that provide a pathway to meaningful, good paying jobs that support the stability of our food supply."

Pennsylvania's $132.5 billion agriculture industry fuels more than 593,000 jobs across the commonwealth, paying nearly $33 billion in wages each year, according to a release from the Secretary's office. Over the next decade, agriculture is expected to face a workforce shortage with the retire of farmers and laborers and the rise of technology jobs.

To support the growth of the food and agriculture workforce, the state launched the PAsmart initiative, investing $30 million in job training and science and technology education. The Governor's initiative supports Registered Apprenticeship, Pre-Apprenticeship, and Apprenticeship Ambassador Network Grants to support schools, students, workers and businesses across the commonwealth develop skilled workers for in-demand jobs.

"Pre-apprenticeships and apprenticeships both provide an invaluable service to our local and statewide workforces, pairing classroom instruction with on-the-job skills training and the chance to earn while you learn," said Secretary of Labor & Industry Jennifer Berrier. "L&I estimates that nearly nine out of 10 apprentices are employed after they complete their apprenticeship, and the majority take jobs with a starting salary of $60,000 a year or more. Apprenticeships also allow Pennsylvanians to graduate with little to no student debt and the ability to build a rapport directly with an employer before they even graduate."

According to the release, National Apprenticeship Week is a nationwide celebration bringing together industry, labor, equity, workforce, education and government leaders to showcase the successes and value of Registered Apprenticeship programs in developing a skilled workforce and strengthening the economy. National Apprenticeship Week was Nov. 15-21, 2021.

To learn more about agriculture apprenticeship programs and workforce development initiatives, visit agriculture.pa.gov.

This article originally ran on northcentralpa.com.

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