Jack Western is unusual. He is young, he is British and would like to be a butcher.
“I’m the only person I went to school with or in my friendship group who’s a butcher,” he says on pork watch preparation at Essington Farm, a family-to-shop family business near Wolverhampton.
“It’s a bit of a dying trade with the younger generation. I think there’s a lot of stigma because people don’t understand much about it.”
Mr Western is one of around 400 apprentices taking slaughterhouses in England each year, a number that is growing but not fast enough to fill the gaps left by Europeans who have left in the last 18 months.
The shortage has left some large farms warning that they may have to fattening pigs because processing plants do not have the necessary manpower and industry bodies have asked the government to grant temporary visas to ease the problem.
So far, ministers have refused, as Boris Johnson is apparently unconcerned, telling interviewers that the pigs will be killed, whether they reach the food chain or not.
It has left the industry as a test case for an economic experiment in which “loads and loads” in the supply chain crisis are reworked as the necessary price to replace “uncontrolled immigration” with highly educated, highly paid British workers.
Essington Farm cuts and sells all its own meat on site, and owner Will Simkin says he has been developing a supply range of butchers, employed from the local area, for several years. He believes his approach should be the goal of the industry, but it will take time.
“Brexit and COVID have conspired to create shortages, even if it’s worse for the big meat processors,” he says.
“We have young butchers, older butchers who are more experienced, and that model must be in the whole trade, it will solve it. But it takes years to train a butcher, three, four, five, even six years until they come to a standard so that it does not happen overnight. “
Crosby Slaughterhouse Training works with about 100 apprentices each year, and Mike Whittemore agrees that it is possible to increase the domestic workforce.
“It’s not new news that there is a shortage, but we are in a better place than we were five years ago,” he said. “There is a lot more interest in trade because wages are better, conditions are better. Five years ago there were only 150 apprentices a year, now it’s 400, and that speaks volumes. But it takes six years to fully train a butcher.”
This time frame means that there is no quick fix to the problem of pigs backing up on farms around the country, a problem that the government was warned about came over a year ago.
Last spring, the Independent Migration Advisory Committee (MAC) told the Home Office that 70 occupations, covering about 14% of all employment, had to be recruited from abroad to avoid potential labor shortages.
The MAC recommended that 20 roles, including butchers, masons, welders, caregivers and nurses, be added to the list of lack of occupation, which exempts workers from the £ 26,500 wage threshold introduced in the post-Brexit point-based immigration system.
The home office said no to anyone other than the nursing and nursing role.
Madeline Sumption, director of the Migration Advisory Committee and a member of the MAC, told Sky News it was unclear how long the current disruption would last. But she said it was doubtful that British workers would occupy all the vacant roles. Instead, farms are likely to produce less and shops become more dependent on imports.
“Larger employers will be able to invest in automation and rely less on workers, and I think smaller employers are more likely to go out of business,” she said.
“In the long run, we will probably see that the composition of the economy will be different, that the UK will not carry out as many of these laborious activities and just import meat from abroad.”
If so, Johnson may be able to claim success, but only if the workers are more productive. If not, businesses and consumers can pay the price for weaning the economy from the single market for labor.