Mention major projects like the Skills Academy, the Green Card scheme and the Sector Skills Agreement and you've only scraped the surface of the work being carried out by the food and drink sector skills council Improve to raise skills levels and productivity in the industry.
Indeed, when it comes to training, Improve is currently working on several initiatives, which, if all goes to plan, could completely transform the face of food and drink qualifications, making them more specific to the sector.
As part of the reform, work-related qualifications, are undergoing a revamp to make them more relevant, achievable and attractive to employers and employees. The work is part of an overall plan to create a Qualifications Framework, which Improve says will be the sector's first fully co-ordinated system of progressive work-related qualifications. The aim is to improve the uptake of all courses - from Level 1, through apprenticeships and up to degree level - and ultimately increase performance throughout the sector. Food safety qualifications were the first to receive the makeover and should be ready to be rolled out from October. Meanwhile, work on the vocational qualifications and NVQs is due to take place between now and April, when the new framework will be launched.
"At the top of our thinking is the need to make available a much broader range of study subjects and establish clearer, more accessible pathways to success," says Derek Williams, development director for Improve.
"Crucial to this will be the introduction of a system in which students, whether in work or education, can accumulate bite-sized units of learning, which build towards the qualifications they desire." The reform began with a widespread consultation with employers and awarding bodies to ensure the needs of the sector were indeed met.
Feeding into the new framework will be the new diploma in manufacturing for 14 to 19-year olds, work on which started this year. The diploma, which will cover manufacturing in its widest context, is the first of its kind and, in keeping with the government's plans to get manufacturing in the curriculum by 2009, will offer an alternative pathway to GCSEs and A Levels, with points of equal value attached.
In partnership with four other sector skills councils for manufacturing, Improve is now conducting a widespread consultation on the diploma, which will combine practical work with technical theory. Employers can log on to a dedicated website http://www.manufacturingdiploma.co.uk to give their views on the content and structure of the diploma. A steering group, made up of employers from all manufacturing sectors, has also been formed to oversee its development.
Moving further up the scale, work is also ongoing to develop more foundation degrees and increase their uptake, as Williams explains. "The government wants 50% of people between the ages of 18 and 32 to either have or be working towards a degree by 2012. The present uptake is around 35%, so clearly to achieve this degrees have got to work within the workplace as well, rather than meaning someone can't work for three years," he says.
With this in mind, Improve has developed a Foundation Degree Framework aimed at encouraging new people into the industry and building career paths for those already employed. "Foundation degrees will provide a key bridge between the academic, vocational and work experience routes into a career in our industry," says Improve's chief executive Jack Matthews.
The mainly vocational degrees are aimed at increasing the number of people qualified at higher technician and associate professional level.
Room for improvement
This is precisely what was achieved at Young's Bluecrest, where manufacturing manager Mike Tuplin recently completed his final year studying for a foundation degree. "It does improve your scope within the business as it makes you think outside your own role," says Tuplin. And because he had to liaise with different colleagues, the course also broke down barriers within the company, he adds.
However, if the industry is to make any real headway in addressing its skills shortages, work has to take place in schools, getting more young people interested in the subject. It's something that's been said many times before, but Improve has been working on it, and from September the first batch of 14-year olds will start the first ever Young Apprenticeships in Food and Drink Manufacturing - the equivalent of four good GCSEs. Sixty-five pupils will be taking part in the apprenticeships, which are being run through three partnerships initially: at Nantwich in Cheshire, Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire and Ipswich in Suffolk.
"This is the first time young people of this age will be able to gain such a wide range of skills and knowledge relevant to food and drink manufacturing," says Williams. "It's an opportunity for us to engage bright, young students and get them excited about pursuing a career in food and drink."
In other industries the first cohort of young apprenticeships are just coming to an end and are being hailed a success by the Department for Education and Skills, which says retention and completion rates have been high. Improve hopes this will increase the chances of further funding being given to expand the overall programme, but won't know until later this year. In the meantime, planning for the next group of partnerships has begun, with bids being taken at Christmas and interest from five parties already.
But one thing is clear, if the work is to be a success, employers need to get on board and lend their support. It's in their best interests after all. FM
virtual becomes a reality for food industry
A series of new learning tools has been developed to not only train newcomers to the food and drink manufacturing industry but also students and those already working within it.
The three 'virtual tours' are the brainchild of Team Food, which is funded by the regional development agency for Yorkshire and the Humber, Yorkshire Forward, to develop innovative learning programmes.
'Bite' covers the bakery sector; 'Oceans' covers seafood; and 'Prime Cuts' deals with the meat and butchery sector. All three tours can be used on the Internet, CD/DVD, Playstation or downloaded. They cover real food processing activities, skills and learning opportunities "where you want, when you want", says Martyn Dickinson at Team Food.
"The tours are highly interactive graphic and video rich learning programmes," explains Dickinson. "It's a way of getting the reality of food and drink manufacturing processes to the learner in a safe and accessible environment."
There is also full access to the group's virtual learning environment, which opens up a library of thousands of learning programmes allowing manufacturers to design their own content, unit by unit. Three extra units: Introduction to Health & Safety; Quality; and Hygiene, can be added to any of the virtual tours to create a 'Food Passport' - a guarantee of appropriate sector specific learning and competence for all workers entering the industry. On-line learning also allows full management of the learning process, from registration through to completion and certification, providing permanent records, says Dickinson.
The tours have also been designed to support Key Stages 3 and 4 in vocational GCSEs and are proving very popular with schools in the region. "The good thing is the teacher doesn't have to be food educated to teach it," Dickinson points out.
The tours are available free of charge for schools, while a full, annual subscription to the virtual learning environment costs £450, £950 or £1,450 per year, depending on the size of the company.
For more information log on to Team Food's website at http://www.teamfood.co.uk