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Feature

Young blood

By Rick Pendrous , 01-May-2012
Last updated on 03-May-2012 at 13:14 GMT

"If you don't buck your ideas up and work harder at school, son, you'll end up in that god-awful food factory down the road." It's a phrase I've heard in various guises over the years and expresses the views held by many parents about the food manufacturing sector.

Hence the Food and Drink Federation's (FDF's) campaign to attract a new generation of young talent into the industry, which includes a series of YouTube clips, including 'Awkward Questions', 'Sugar Rush' and 'Chilli Baby'.

Chilli baby (Lily Ashford), who we discover after a blast of her fiery breath incinerates an unsuspecting workman, is destined to become a future curry paste technologist. And it sends out a message to potential new recruits that careers in the UK's food industry could actually be fun!

At last manufacturers are being confident enough to suggest that careers in the industry can offer so much more than working in a cold and wet working environment, wearing wellies and a hair net and being badly paid for doing a repetitive job on a production line.

The YouTube clips are just one small part of the FDF's Taste Success A Future in Food campaign (www.tastesuccess.co.uk ) designed to change perceptions in the target audience of 13- to 19-year-olds.

FDF president Jim Moseley showed the 'Chili Baby' clip as part of his presentation at Food Manufacture's HR Skills Forum. The event was organised in conjunction with the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST), at the Food and Drink Expo show at the NEC in March.

"We need government and other stakeholders to be talking more positively about our industry," said Moseley. "Arguably, Scotland is in the lead in improving the image of the sector, with the Scottish FDF having just launched a new initiative: the Food and Drink Skills Ambassadors Network, which is funded by the Scottish government and Skills Development Scotland."

The Forum, titled 'Skills for a changing world of work', brought together professionals from across the sector to address some of the major hurdles it faces.

If the poor image of the industry wasn't enough, forum chairman, Jack Matthews, chief executive of the food and drink sector skills council Improve and the National Skills Academy (NSA) for food and drink (who has since announced his departure from the organisations) pointed out some of the other challenges facing the industry today.

There are some big issues to address. From the need to replace 137,000 people (a third of the total employed) as many will retire over the next five years, to the sector's over-dependence on overseas nationals, and skills gaps in technology and engineering.

"Skills will become one of the great competitive edges of the future," said Matthews. But, he warned, there will be increasing competition from other sectors for the most talented people. "We are employing fewer women and fewer young people every year. We do have a tendency to recruit into the adult population and not bring young people in," he added. "And we cannot attract UK nationals into our sector 30% of our jobs are filled by migrant workers and, in some companies, that is in the upper 80s."

While food and drink manufacturing in the UK is an incredibly successful, world-class sector, the problem we face is in attracting and retaining the talent to maintain that position, said Matthews. It was a point echoed by Moseley.

The industry needs to target 14-year-olds. "Because at the moment the sector is well, well under their radar," said Matthews. "How do we actually change people's perception of a career in food and drink from being one which is, at best, ambivalent and, at worst, negative?"

See inside manufacturing

Moseley cited the 'See inside manufacturing' initiative from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, in which the food sector is participating with the aerospace and automotive industries, as an opportunity for food to raise its profile by opening its doors to young people. The initiative kicks off next month in an attempt to inspire youngsters to embark on careers in food manufacturing.

However, much more is required. Food and drink manufacture also needs to publicise the very high-quality apprenticeship schemes it offers young people. They need go no further for exemplars than the experiences described at the HR forum by Sam Richards: a fourth- and final-year apprentice at Nestlé's Tutbury plant, who spoke very eloquently about what a high-quality scheme looks like.

Richards explained what had led him into an apprenticeship and what more food and drink companies could do to publicise the career opportunities they offer students in schools and colleges. One of the biggest attractions, he said, was the ability to earn while learning and still gaining qualifications.

Richards described the training and mentoring support he received, which had provided him with the skills and confidence to embark on a career within the sector. "I feel part of the team when I'm on a shift," said Richards. "I work with two fully qualified engineers and I am treated the same as they are, so I feel comfortable at work and that is why I enjoy my job."

Matthews reported on the industry's pledge to double the number of apprentices in food and drink manufacturing to 3,500 by the end of the year. "I am pleased to say that our targets for apprentices are constantly being beaten," he said.

But there is still a mountain to climb. As Matthews added: "How do we increase our access to people with the right skills and talent to meet the increasing challenges of radically changing home and overseas markets?" Improve, he said, had gained £1.7M of government funding through the UK Commission for Employment and Skills "to drive forward a range of solutions identified by you as employers as being key priorities for the skills agenda". He welcomed even more the cash and participation from the industry itself to support these aims. "This demonstrates the commitment of the sector to addressing skills gaps."

But the time for co-ordinated action is clearly overdue. As, Chris Edwards, technical competence development manager at Arla Foods, remarked, all too often in the past organisations representing the industry have launched initiatives, only for these to fall by the wayside because of a lack of joined-up thinking.

This particular criticism could be consigned to history, as the FDF, Improve, the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink and the IFST come together in a concerted attempt to address the problems. While it's still early days, early signs indicate a willingness to succeed.

Transferable skills

The IFST's chief executive Jon Poole outlined plans to attract tomorrow's talent that involved all stakeholders. These included developing career paths, mobility and transferable skills that meet the changing needs of employers and those they employ.

Over the next five years, it is estimated that the UK economy will require 40% more technically skilled people, said Poole. And this applies to the food and drink sector as much as any other, with good food scientists and food production engineers being in particular demand.

Addressing the fundamental obstacles: the image of sector; clearer career paths; better recognition for those working in the sector; and encouraging young people to consider a career in food and drink will be critical, remarked Poole.

The IFST, Improve, FDF, with partners and supporters, are looking to develop a professional recognition framework for the food sector, he said. While government funding is needed to support elements of the research and pilot studies necessary for the scheme, support financial and in kind will also be needed from the industry if the dream is to be translated into a reality, he added.

If successful, the joint solution would provide a 'blueprint', which defined excellence for key roles across the sector, he added. It would provide recognition for those in skilled roles. It would also encourage individuals to focus on developing their skills further, while providing them with transparent but highly flexible career paths.

Poole cited a new qualification for professional recognition of technicians as a useful "stepping stone". This was Registered Science Technician (RSciTech), just launched by government in conjunction with the Technician Council. The IFST has been licensed by the Science Council to accredit RSciTech training, and this will be introduced either this month or next. It would not only provide recognition at Level 3 (A-level or equivalent), but ensure those acquiring these qualification have the 'soft' skills and behaviours much sought after by potential employers.

Where appropriate, the RSciTech qualification would permit progression for individuals up the ladder, acquiring Registered Science (RSci) and Chartered Scientist (CSci) qualifications as required, said Poole. "This is an employer-based scheme, not a government scheme and this is what employers have told us they need in order to be able to recognise talent."

While initially aimed at food science and technology roles, there was no reason why wider professional recognition could not develop parallel recognition disciplines in the industry such as management, butchery, bakery or others, he added.

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