Special Edition: Food Factory Careers

Apprenticeships and 'fit for purpose' careers system key to bridging skills gaps

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Industry Food industry Government

The UK food and drink industry is facing a “notable skills gap” – a trend that if not reversed will hit the sector’s ability to compete on a national and global scale, said the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).

In the final part of our special edition on Food Factory Careers, FoodProductionDaily.com examines what can be done to tackle the potentially damaging situation in what is the UK’s largest single manufacturing sector, accounting for 16 per cent of the total workforce.

The threat posed by an ageing workforce and the industry’s image problem, combined with the need for better careers advice to highlight opportunities and the development of a clearer entry route must be addressed, said the industry body.

The FDF has called on the Government to create a careers system that was fit for purpose and to dramatically boost the number of apprenticeships – but stressed that the industry bears an equal responsibility in attracting fresh talent.

Skills gap and careers advice

The scope of the problem was laid bare in a recent report from industry skills council Improve​, which revealed that food and drink companies must recruit 137,000 new employees by 2017 – the equivalent of 31 per cent of the current workforce – despite the fact that employment numbers are predicted to drop by 6 per cent.

The skill set demanded for the sector is set to shift dramatically. Job losses will be concentrated in low and intermediate skill level positions while the need for higher skilled occupations will grow strongly, it said.

Food scientists and technologists, engineers and skilled trade positions for sectors such as bakery and meat processing will be the priorities for companies seeking to adjust to an industry that is increasingly global, high-tech and ever-more competitive.

A skills gap in the sector already exists across a range of key areas – chiefly in science and technology, said Angela Coleshill, FDF’s director of human resources. One in five vacancies for food scientists and technology is currently hard to fill. This can only be of concern given that this is a key field where demand is set to grow in the next six years.

The food and drink industry is facing skills shortages in a number of critical areas,”​ she added. “The problem is not a lack of employment opportunities, but of suitably qualified applicants from schools and universities.”

‘Not fit for purpose’

Coleshill said a key aspect is the need to improve careers advice given to young people so they can make informed decisions.

“The current system is not fit for purpose, with people often lacking knowledge about their careers options,”​ she said. “It needs to be based on clear labour market information which demonstrates the economic and employment outcomes of different decisions.”

The FDF acknowledged the food industry has suffered from an image problem of being a repository for low-paid and temporary employments – but insisted this was a myth with the sector boasting higher average weekly earnings compared to the economy as a whole and average job tenure of over nine years.

Coleshill urged the Government to play a role in promoting the importance of the food and drink industries and the opportunities for careers in the sectors. Providing the right education and training and skills frameworks to deliver “employment-ready individuals onto the job”​ was vital, she added.

But she stressed industry also bore equal responsibility to market itself effectively and provide the right entry mechanisms to attract young people into the industry. The body has launched a campaign - Taste Success - A Future in Food - to address the skills shortage and is calling on the Government for support.

Coleshill highlighted the pivotal role she expects apprenticeships to play in the future.

“Apprenticeships will be key to up-skilling in the food and drink industry but we need to make it easier for the industry to use them,”​ she said. “We would therefore like to work with the Government and relevant partners to increase the number of apprentices in the sector and create a pool of industry apprentices that can be developed and deployed across the industry building skills for the future.”

Allan Wheelwright, HR director at The William Jackson Food Group, also backed the need for an industry-Government partnership to advance training.

The company is keen to expand its year-long food student placement scheme as well as extending training for existing staff, said Wheelwright, a member of the FDF’s employment and skills committee.

“As for solutions, it is predominantly down to the industry to ensure there isn’t a skills shortage. However, the Government can help through making sure that there are the courses at university for students wanting to study food science and technology,”​ he added. “The Government can also help by providing funding for apprentice schemes which is another way of bringing people into the industry with formal qualifications and training.”

He said that in theory a skills shortage could affect a business’s willingness to invest in new facilities and manufacturing technology.

“I don’t think this is the case currently but one would want to make sure it didn’t happen,”​ added Wheelwright. “We certainly wouldn’t want investment to go to other countries because of a shortage of skills here.”

Visit FoodNavigatorJobs​ for up-to-date information on careers and recruitment in the industry.

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