Weekly Comment

Training the salt of the earth

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Related tags: Total uk workforce, Food and drink, United kingdom, Uk

On International Labour Day, workers across the world will be
raising a glass in honour of the salt of the earth.

It is however important to realise that the workers who make those beverages are among the lowest skilled relative to other industries. This situation has to change. With the manufacturing side of the food sector becoming more automated and technology driven, it is an imperative for industry to invest in its workers. The wiser heads in the industry are coming around to that imperative. Some are investing internally in upgrading their worker skills. The far-sighted ones are contributing to national programmes such as the UK's national food and drink skills improvement council. However one needs money and a long term vision to invest in workers, as the payoff is not immediate. The commitment is an especially difficult one for smaller companies to make, as the consequence is higher expenses, higher wages, and the real possibility that the worker with increased skills will hightail it to a bigger competitor. Add to that the pressure from retailers and consumers to keep prices, and hence costs, as low as possible, and the current situation is understandable. But it is no longer tenable. Take for example the situation in the UK, which has been one of the more aggressive countries in addressing the skills shortage. According to a study last year, the country's food and drink industry has one of the most poorly qualified workforces in the UK. About 19 per cent of the sector's workforce has no qualifications, compared to the average of 11 per cent for the total UK workforce. One-third of staff in the processing sector has no qualifications at all. Also lacking were the large number of food technologists and scientists who are needed to drive innovation in the sector. It is no surprise that along with the lack of worker investment, the EU food and drink industry is also behind the rest of the world in research and development expenditure. Again, the real culprit is the cost pressure syndrome, which must be tackled. No money in, means no money for the long-term investment to keep the industry sustainable and competitive. Industry realises the problem. Just this month Jean Martin, the president of the EU's Confederation of Food and Drink Industries (CIAA), called for more investment in "human capital", the workers, by providing adequate training and through promoting the development of food science related degrees. He was speaking about the needs of industry over the next 25 years. A lack of investment in R&D and in workers goes hand-in-hand he suggested. With all that said, now is the time to take action. Automation, robots and intelligent software will replace much of the grunt work in the factory, making those who know how to fix, operate and adjust the equipment a more valuable resource. Without an action plan to meet those changes the food industry risks neglecting its most basic of inputs. It is a difficult, but not insurmountable task. So tomorrow, give a thought to your workers, and raise a glass to the demands of the future. Note: Most countries celebrate Labour Day on May 1, known as May Day. The US and Canada celebrates the day on the first Monday in September. Ahmed ElAmin is editor of FoodProductionDaily.com. He is a business journalist who specialises in development issues, food, wine, technology, international business and offshore finance. To comment on this article please e-mail ahmed.elamin@decisionnews.com.

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