Seven years ago the Meat Training Council (MTC) enjoyed the full benefits of a government subsidy and the high profile role of the official awarding body for meat industry qualifications.
But all that was fundamentally threatened when the government pulled its support six years ago and created dedicated sector skills councils (SSCs) for every industry, including Improve for the food and drink arena.
The SSCs took on all the responsibilities previously held by a gamut of non-governmental organisations.
But while the past few years have been a testing time, they have forged the MTC into an organisation committed to raising training standards in the red meat and poultry sector, says chairman Bill Jermey.
It's a testimony to the high regard in which the industry held the MTC that it emerged from its trials in a position of strength, while other bodies disappeared completely.
"The MTC regarded itself as being quite advanced in its work on training, particularly with regard to hazard analysis critical control point procedures," says Jermey, who became chairman three and a half years ago. "My predecessors thought we still had something to offer the industry, but we were at a crossroads."
Sense rapidly prevailed and rather than reinventing the wheel, the MTC has been able to maintain and build on its original role as the government overhauled food and drink National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs). "It enabled us to have a good, hard look at what we were doing," says Jermey. "We concentrated on being an awarding body and sorting out our finances. We are now challenging [the UK's top awarding body] City & Guilds as to who will be the lead awarding body in the future."
The MTC set about mapping out everything from basic to advanced qualifications. These range from Meat & Poultry Processing S/NVQs, Levels 1-3 and Level 1 NVQs in Cleaning & Support Services to Advanced Certificates in Meat & Poultry Hygiene.
"The main thing we will be doing is overseeing the work of Improve in this sector, ensuring the suitability of courses and providing feedback between industry, training providers and the SSC," Jermey says.
The MTC is making such a name for itself as the meat and poultry sector qualifications awards and standards body that it is beginning to broaden its remit beyond this. It has already devised a framework for food and drink qualifications based on its meat and poultry roadmap, and Jermey adds: "In areas such as cleaning and packaging, there are demands from outside the industry for similar NVQs."
Of course, he affirms that the focus will remain on the meat and poultry industry and there are other aims within that. "Our main target at present is to get our charitable work back to full flow."
Having returned to its roots as a registered charity, the MTC has established an annual fund of £250,000 for projects that its trustees believe maintain its work and objectives. It aims to add to this figure annually. This money is devoted to meat industry training initiatives.
"We are funded purely by our own commercial activities," says Jermey. "Mainly through awarding fees and a number of small courses." These include Species Specific Animal Welfare Certificates; Abattoir Animal Welfare Certificates for Poultry; and Fish Welfare Officer courses.
Jermey says: "The call is for manufacturers and training providers to communicate their needs. We have already agreed to funding for a number of applications. Training providers and companies that are providing in-house training are among those who have applied."
The MTC is also playing a vital role in designing apprenticeships that will satisfy the requirements of those taking them as much as their employers.
Apprenticeships, too, are going through massive changes to relate them more directly to the workplace and make them more practical. One of the problems has been that they gave apprentices an unrealistic picture of what their jobs entailed. When they found their experience didn't match their learning, their bosses and they themselves became frustrated and they dropped out.
"We're working with Improve to get the views of the industry on the content of apprenticeships," says Jermey.
"Where apprentices were on placement 18 months ago, employers didn't like the technical certificates for them. We have worked with apprentices on these certificates and we are seeing an uptake on applications as a result."
In terms of the training that the MTC itself provides, the latest developments have been its one-day animal welfare and poultry inspector courses, which are held on processors' premises, rather than externally.
Changes to EU animal welfare legislation will require firms to develop wider knowledge of such issues, where before responsibility was primarily assumed by animal welfare officers. Some argue that this led to companies merely paying lipservice to the subject. "We have redesigned our courses to make them relevant to a wider range of employees," says Jermey. The first such course has already been held and others will follow shortly.
As far as training for meat inspectors is concerned, the system has changed, so that qualified inspectors no longer have to be independent of the industry, but can be employed within it. "We have developed a poultry inspector course," says Jermey. "If successful with poultry, we will probably move on to look at pork inspection next."
He anticipates the timescale for developing a full range of courses for meat inspectors to be about three to four years.
Clearly the organisation has come a long way and has big plans for the future. The challenge for the meat and poultry industry now is to invest in being a part of that, not forgetting the chance to bid for the training pot that the MTC provides. In this spirit of mutual support, the MTC hopes the sector can build a premier reputation for itself on the world stage - and it may just be right.