Swine Jobs School: A rural ed program to provide trained employees for Michigan’s pork industry

MSU Extension’s swine specialists and pork educators recently completed a jobs training program providing trained individuals for Michigan’s pork industry.

Starting in the fall of 2009 and running through 2010, the MSU Extension Pork Team was involved in a project called Swine Jobs School. The purpose of the project was to provide an employee preparedness program in rural settings using Extension and University specialists as instructors and local farms as on-farm training facilities. The project was developed in response to the human resource needs of Michigan´s pork industry and designed to give new skills to both new entrants into the work force and displaced workers seeking new opportunities in an alternative career field.  

Each class of Swine Jobs School lasted a total of eleven weeks. The first two weeks were a combination of classroom instruction and on-farm supervised training. During this portion of the program, students received approximately 40 hours of classroom instruction combined with supervised on-farm training in breeding, farrowing, nursery and finishing phases of production, animal handling, swine health and feed processing.

To reinforce the early classroom studies and on-farm supervised training, the second phase of the program included 9 weeks of on-farm work experience. During this portion of the program, students worked a minimum of 16 hours per week on a swine farm in their community. Host farms were provided latitude in scheduling the students work experience allowing the farm to utilize the student in the area the student was most interested in, but the farm manager was asked to ensure students gained experience in each area of production. Students were not compensated for the work performed during this phase of the program.

Three Swine Jobs School programs were offered and a total of 21 students enrolled. Demographics of the students were evenly divided between recent high school graduates, individuals in their late 20s and early 30s, those with families and those older workers seeking alternative career options.

Eleven students completed all phases of the program. At the time of the program’s evaluation in January 2011, four of the 11 were currently working on swine farms with two having advanced into positions with greater responsibilities. After completing the program, two students decided to continue their education. One enrolled in the MSU Ag Tech program and the other enrolled in a local junior college. One student was briefly employed on a swine farm after completing the class but decided to take another career path. Two students declined offers they received during Swine Jobs School. Only two of the eleven were still looking for positions on swine farms.

Of the ten students who did not complete the class, four found employment in other careers while they were enrolled in Swine Jobs School, two discovered they were not interested in working on large swine farms, one student had a pre-existing health concern, another went back to work on the family hog farm after completing the classroom portion, one lived in an area of low hog numbers and one student attended the classroom portion just to learn about hog production.

All students were asked to provide their own evaluation of the program. They reported they liked the format of the program combining classroom studies with hands-on experience. They felt the curriculum was appropriate and not too demanding. Some students felt additional hands on instruction prior to their reporting for the on-farm work experience would have been helpful. They expressed no reservations concerning the sixteen hours per week for the nine week on-farm work experience that was completed without compensation.

In their evaluations of the program, host farm managers reported that Swine Jobs School students were 50% better prepared to work on swine farms than new employees who did not participate in the school. Managers stated that Swine Jobs School graduates were three to four months ahead of any new employee who had not participated in the program. These farm managers also reported the rewards from acting as host farms for the on-farm supervised instruction and the on-farm work experience exceeded the costs of participation, including the lower labor productivity as a result of employees taking time to train the program’s students. These farm managers also suggested additional on-farm supervised training should be incorporated into the classroom sessions.

Swine Jobs School successfully provided a rural education program incorporating classroom studies and experiential learning. Student evaluations indicate even those who didn’t complete the program were positively impacted by participating in the jobs training program. During the post program evaluation, the program’s facilitator reported 75% of the 21 participants were currently employed or continuing their education, but only 24% were employed in an area related to swine production.

Swine Jobs School was funded in part by the North Central Risk Management Education Center and was made possible through the cooperation of the Gratiot Isabella Regional Education Service District, Schoolcraft Township and the local farms who hosted Swine Jobs School students.

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