The ethnic food market is one of the fastest growing markets in Europe, undoubtedly helped along by the British public’s continuing love affair with all things hot and spicy. Unfortunately, this passion doesn’t seem to extend into the ethnic food manufacturing industry, which is struggling to recruit hot new talent and suffering from a less than sexy image, says the Ethnic Food Action Group’s (EFAG) project manager Stephen Noblett.
Research published earlier this year by independent market analyst Datamonitor shows that sales of ethnic food in Europe are rising at 14% a year and are expected to hit euro 7bn by 2009. Meanwhile, every year the average Brit is chomping through an average of £35 worth of ethnic food at home making them the top spenders in Europe.
But, says Noblett, ask any food manufacturer in the ethnic sector whether this is equates to increased uptake of jobs within the industry, and the answer will be no.
“There are major skills shortages within food engineering and new product development as well as a lack of chefs in the industry as a whole, but particularly in the ethnic - and by that I mean non-indigenous British food - sector." The reason for this, as Noblett sees it, is two fold. First and foremost, there are simply not enough young people within the UK wanting to embark on a career with ethnic food, which means chefs have to be brought in from abroad. But herein lies the second problem, as these chefs are subject to visa restrictions and manufacturers are having trouble getting them in to the country, says Noblett.
“So we are being hit from two sides and manufacturers are trying to address that. We need to find the skilled staff to meet the growth in the industry," adds Noblett.
As part of its work to do just that, the EFAG, which is one of the many arms of regional development agency Yorkshire Forward, works with manufacturers, giving them advice and helping them bridge the skills gap. It does this in close partnership with Leeds Thomas Danby College, which provides, among other things, training courses for employers; with an International Skills Academy aimed specifically at providing a service to ethnic food manufacturers.
One business that has benefited from the EFAG and is trying to do its bit for the industry in return, is small ethnic food manufacturer Sector Foods, run by Vipin Joshi and set up by his mother. Producing additive-free ready meals under the brand names Sector Foods and Amala, the Bradfordbased company has grown from just three members of staff last year to its current quota of 15 and now exports to United Arab Emirates.
Not just packing lines
“We close our factory one day of the year and invite secondary schoolchildren to come in and see the benefits of working in the industry," says Joshi. “We try and dispel the myths that surround the industry and show people that we have degree educated people earning between £25,000 and £30,000 a year it’s not all packing lines. We make them understand how chemistry is involved in food and show them how the subjects they enjoy in school can be carried over into the industry."
He adds: “It’s a career path. You don’t have to expect to be on a packing line for the rest of your life, but you get out of it what you put in."
Noblett, who is also a partner in the International Food Skills Academy, believes showing youngsters that there is a career path within the food industry is one of the most important factors in driving up numbers. “At the moment catering has a poor image, so we have got to keep creating new dishes," he says. “People want more and more ethnic food, so each year we have got to keep inventing new products. It’s like a treadmill but we need the skills there to do it."
The EFAG is also taking a pro-active approach to raising interest levels in the ethnic food industry, with a pilot scheme launched last year involving giving presentations and cookery demonstrations in secondary schools and bringing in successful ethnic food companies.
“The aim is to show them that the ethnic food industry is sexy and it is interesting," says Noblett. “As the fastest growing sector in British ready meals it has never been so interesting, so now really is the time to get on board." It is hoped the scheme will be rolled out across the North West next year once funding has been secured.
Meanwhile, Yorkshire Forward is running a similar scheme in primary and secondary schools to promote the potential for career paths in the industry.
Although referred to as a bus, the cooking bus is actually a huge arctic trailer complete with a full size, hi-tech teaching kitchen that travels around schools in Yorkshire and the Humber. Launched in June this year, the bus enables young people to get a taste of cooking by introducing them to top chefs and challenging their perceptions of the industry.
Head of enterprise at Yorkshire Forward Alex McWhirter believes the concept, although not the first in the country (the Food Standards Agency also has a country-wide cooking bus), will start to address the skills gap in the industry.
Over at Leeds Thomas Danby, work is being done across the board to drive up interest and skills levels, both within the food manufacturing industry as well as the foodservice sector, as curriculum manager Theresa Duggan explains.
“We run a junior chefs academy for 12 to 16 year olds, where they come in and learn about cooking and opportunities within the industry," she said. “We also train up employers within the industry so they can train their own staff; the aim being to create a sustainable, competency based training programme for the future."
The college also works with employers, Business Link West Yorkshire, Yorkshire Forward and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) to create new programmes tailored to meet specific needs.
But it is in the college’s new International Kitchen, part of the International Culinary Arts Academy, that the work for the ethnic food industry really begins. The initiative covers Chinese Thai, Japanese, Caribbean, Mediterranean, Asian and South Asian, Italian and Mexican cuisine, while the Academy offers training and education opportunities to individuals and the corporate sector. FM