Migrants from the next two countries due to join the EU, in 2007, would be unlikely to fill posts in the food and drink industry, said the chief executive of the sector's skills council Improve.
Jack Matthews said that future migrant workers from Bulgaria and Romania would predominantly have lower skills than those from the 10 recent EU accession countries, whereas employers were increasingly demanding higher skills.
He was neutral about their entry to the UK, but said: "We have created an open market under Labour, so we have to utilise it." He said that in the sector, workers from the recent new EU members were already trading up their skills and many, unlike Bulgarians and Romanians, had already been trained at home to mid- to high skill levels. Currently, about a quarter of migrants in food and drink processing were trained to graduate level, said Improve.
With demand growing for higher skills, and lower-skilled jobs in decline, it was "unlikely" that any new influx would have much bearing on the industry if they did not possess the right skills, said Matthews.
"We are going to need to fill 120-130,000 new jobs between now and 2012, most of those at the higher levels," he said. "They are not all going to be filled by migrants, school leavers or people coming over from other industries, so we will have to look to our existing workforce. Migration is only part of a much bigger picture on where skills development is needed, which is primarily within our own workforce."
Latest government figures showed that 447,000 eastern Europeans registered to work in the UK in the two years to June 2006 and are increasingly filling the gaps in the labour market, especially in food processing. The government is now under pressure to impose restrictions on migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria, when they join the EU in 2007.