Low-Pay Jobs Boom in the Slaughterhouse

Manufacturing employment peaked in the U.S. in June 1979. After rebounding for several years after the last recession, the sector shed

another 45,000 jobs in 2016, according to the

employment report

released today.

But there is a manufacturing industry that added

jobs

in 2016. And while it's not quite at its all-time peak, employment in this industry is

a lot higher than it was in the 1970s. It also involves poorly paid, unpleasant work that you may not think of as manufacturing.

Guessed it yet? It's

animal slaughtering and meat processing, which employed an estimated 495,300 Americans in

November (jobs numbers for many

industries are reported with a one-month lag), seasonally adjusted, up from 488,600 the year before.
 

Back in June 1979, animal slaughtering and meat processing represented 1.9

percent of total U.S. manufacturing employment. Now it's 4

percent. The industry

employs more than twice as

many people as does

motor vehicle

manufacturing
, which

gets a

lot

more attention from politicians and the news media.

The workers are

paid about

half as much as motor vehicle makers

(among production and non-supervisory workers, they averaged $14.72

an hour in November compared with $29.33 for motor vehicle workers), and they often

labor under deplorable

conditions
. A lot of them are recent immigrants, and they're mostly scattered across the country far

from the centers of power and wealth.

Low pay, poor

working conditions and a high percentage

of recent-immigrant workers are nothing new for slaughterhouses. Decentralization is, though (at least if you define "new" pretty expansively). From the Civil War through the 1920s, the industry was headquartered

on the South Side of Chicago, where trainloads of cattle and hogs came in and trainloads of steaks, hams and such went back out. It was one of the

first modern, assembly-line manufacturing industries, led by two of the great 19th-century business

titans, Philip Armour and Gustavus Swift.

I'm in Chicago right now and have been

reading about Armour and Swift, which is

what inspired me to look into slaughterhouse employment for my monthly off-kilter examination of the jobs report.

With the rise of trucking, vast, centralized

stockyards and slaughterhouses in the middle of what was then the nation's second-largest city

didn't make quite as

much sense anymore
. Chicago's

Union Stock Yards

shut down in 1971. The only major slaughterhouse left in town, as best I can tell,

is a

halal facility

in the old stockyards district a few blocks southwest of

Guaranteed Rate Field, the

ridiculous new name

of the place where

the White Sox play. Also, the big growth in animal slaughtering and processing employment since the 1970s hasn't been so much in beef and pork

slaughterhouses

as in

poultry-processing

facilities, and all the

biggest chicken-raising states are

in the South
.
 

As a result of both the decentralization of beef and pork processing and the rise of the chicken, the geography of animal slaughtering and processing employment in the U.S. now looks like this (these numbers are from the

Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages; the most recent data available is from June):
 

The location quotient measures the industry's relative importance to a state. The number

means that Nebraskan

workers, for example, are 7.73 times more likely to be employed in animal slaughtering and processing than American workers in general are. Three states with high

location quotients that didn't make this list because they aren't very populous are Delaware

(5.32), Mississippi (4.36) and South Dakota (3.92).

So ... there you

have it. I'll be honest: I have no grand conclusion here; I was just curious. I

was tempted to say that all this is

evidence that manufacturing jobs aren't necessarily good jobs, but in a lot of the places where animal slaughtering and meat processing is done, it provides better work

than whatever else is available. I was also tempted to say that it's a manufacturing industry where workers are unlikely to be replaced with robots, but

that's not necessarily true. In any case, it is one of the oldest industries and, until we all turn vegetarian, it's not going away.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of "The Myth of the Rational Market."

  1. Motor vehicle

    manufacturing of course creates lots of other jobs in parts plants, steel and aluminum mills, dealerships, and so on. Animal slaughtering and processing creates lots of related jobs, too,

    though.

  2. There were several newspaper articles about a decade ago about the looming closing of the "last major

    slaughterhouse in Chicago," Chiappetti Veal and Lamb. Chiappetti lives on as a subsidiary of Strauss Brands Inc., which is based in Wisconsin, while its old Chicago stockyards location is occupied by Barkaat Foods, where an imals "are Hand slaughtered by Muslims which accommodates universal Zabiha standards." Want a "virtual tour"?

  3. No, I don't know why the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data on poultry processing employment going back to while the numbers for the overall animal slaughtering and processing industry only go back to But I figured I should use all the numbers available to me.

  4. What's with Delaware?

    Sussex County, at the southern end of the state, is the birthplace of the broiler chicken industry

 
Comments