Tomorrow's industry leaders will need to be far more technologically competent to maintain the UK's lead in many areas of food and drink manufacture and cope with increasing competition from emerging nations, according to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).
At an event held in London, Angela Coleshill, the FDF's director of competitiveness outlined the challenges faced by the sector. She described the careers campaign initiated by the FDF in conjunction with the sector skills council Improve, the National Skills Academy (NSA) and the Institute of Food Science and Technology to attract more young people into sector. A key focus of the campaign will be to change the poor image the sector has among the public.
Schemes planned within a new strategic skills framework, which has just received a pledge from government of £1.7M to match industry funding, range from new simplified apprenticeship programme to plans to attract the best graduates. The apprenticeship programme which plans to double the number of apprentices in food manufacturing from 1,700 to 3,500 in 2012 includes support for smaller employers to reduce the burden of taking on apprentices.
The campaign is also focusing on "busting the myths" that are prevalent about career opportunities, pay and conditions of employment within the sector. "We do realise we have got an image problem and the perception of the sector has got to change," said Coleshill. Skills shortages were arising for food scientists and technologists and engineers, specifically, with 20% of companies reporting shortages, she added.
The event, which included presentations from three young apprentices employed by Kraft and Nestlé, coincided with a 'showcase' highlighting the best about food and drink manufacture held at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). This was designed to raise the profile of the sector among government and officials who have not in the past recognised the importance it plays to the UK economy.
Coleshill said the industry understood it had to do much more to promote careers in the sector through direct engagement by companies in "influencing the influencers" and through the advice they give in schools and work experience they can offer.
With the numbers of young people between 16 and 24 set to decline over the next few years and graduate numbers expected to be hit by rising tuition fees next year, the industry also recognises that competition for the best talent will intensify and that it needs to raise its game in attracting these people.
Plans are also in hand over the next two years to pilot a new degree with one or two universities focused specifically on the needs of food manufacturing. Courses are likely to include industrial placements to help students hone their practical and team-working skills. There is increasing concern within the sector that the quality of the graduate pool is not as good as it might be, with employers such as Vimto's md Jonathan Bye reporting deficiencies in basic communication and numeracy skills among recent graduates interviewed.
"While there are good engineering degrees, there are no engineering degrees just for food manufacturing," noted Coleshill. "We need to create a degree that is fit for purpose for the sector." A big problem to overcome is that when young people think about careers in engineering, aerospace and motor manufacture often appear more attractive than food manufacture.
"Our ambition is to make food engineering the sought-after career of the future," said NSA director Justine Fosh.