BRITAIN’s “chick sexing” industry is facing a chronic shortage of staff – despite a salary of almost £40,000 a year.
The poultry trade is struggling to recruit people willing to perform the delicate task of telling whether a tiny chick is a male or female.
Chick sexers train for up to three years and are expected to be able to sort day-old chicks at a rate of up to 1,000 an hour – between 13 and 20 a minute – reaching an accuracy rate of 98 per cent during a 12-hour shift.
They are expected to work these shifts at poultry farms, examining the “miniscule differences” in the size and shape of the chicks’ genitalia, without compromising the welfare of the animals.
Last year the industry failed to recruit a single chick sexer and it now wants the job to go on an official government list of occupations which a chronic shortage of staff.
This would allow it to recruit more easily from outside the EU, including South Korea, where chick sexing is considered a high-status job.
However, the list’s committee ruled that it should not be put on the shortage occupation list.
Andrew Large, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, said that the job was skilled employment that could not be carried out by a machine.
He said: “Chick sexers examine the vent – the anus – of a chick, its genitalia, and by a very miniscule difference in the size and shape, then determine whether the bird is male or female.
Poultry breeders need to be able to separate the chicks into those that will lay eggs and those that will be roosters.
“It is proving difficult to get people to stay in the job,” Mr Large said. “It takes three years to train someone so they develop the sensitivity and dexterity to reliably sex the bird and a lot of people don’t want to spend that amount of time training.
“It is a job which requires a sensitivity in the use of the fingers, manual dexterity and good eyesight.”
He added that machines could not do the job because it involved looking at the most delicate area of the bird and had to be carried out sensitively so as not to hurt it.
“No machine could ever approach the accuracy or speed of a person. An experienced chick sexer can do 1,000 chicks an hour with an accuracy rate of 97 to 98 per cent,” he said.
There are an estimated 100 to 150 chick sexers in the country but a shortage of 15 workers means export markets risk being lost.
Despite an average salary of £38,500 and wage increases of between 2 and 4 per cent over the past three years, vacancies are remaining unfilled for up to five years.
Mr Large said: “I think the problem is the job itself. You are spending hours every day staring at the backside of a chick. That is not seen as being attractive.
“In southeast Asia, a chick sexer is a high status job. In the UK it is more likely to be the butt of humour.”