Talk of food industry training initiatives could be irrelevant if the government, under pressure to heal the economy, keeps pursuing a tough line on funding. And that's not even allowing for a change in who runs the country after the odds-on date of May 6 for the General Election.
The leaked Department for Business, Innovation and Skills memo marked 'Protected Funding Policy' was reported in November as suggesting £100M of administration and quango cuts. Many of these quangos support skills, training and qualifications projects.
In addition, the memo isolated £252M worth of cuts to government programmes such as Train to Gain, Adult Apprenticeships and Skills for Life, provoking an outcry from UK businesses and trade organisations. "The government has identified that the way to grow the economy is through workforce skills," says Jack Matthews, chief executive of Food and Drink Sector Skills Council Improve. "The very place you need to invest is the very place that is being curtailed."
As Food Manufacture went to press, Improve was awaiting £6.8M of funding through the government's Young Person's Guarantee Scheme to train those aged under 25 for food and drink careers. The scheme, which is in partnership with Job Centre Plus, should cover places for 2,500 trainees.
How cuts are made is under intense debate. In October, Improve proudly announced securing relicensing and annual government funding indefinitely. Less than five months later, the picture doesn't seem so rosy.
"With the size of the national budget deficit at £178bn, it's not surprising that every area of public spending is being considered for cuts," says Matthews. "We will all have to cut our cloth accordingly.
"The government has acknowledged that it has over-committed £500M to Train to Gain. That situation will have to be reversed."
When asked if funding levels for food industry training look like being maintained, Tim Lang, commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission and professor of food policy at London's City University, says bluntly: "No. The economy is in a mess and these huge debts have got to be paid off."
Matthews, like others such as the Food and Drink Federation, believes government funding should prioritise food processing as the largest manufacturing sector and instrumental to economic recovery. He cites the Prime Minister's New Industry, New Jobs initiative, launched on April 20 2009, which aims to strengthen the UK's economic and industrial future: "The food industry will be well-placed to capitalise on New Industry, New Jobs. By nature it's an innovative sector, where a number of companies are investing in crucial areas such as becoming carbon neutral and robotics and automation."
Prominent academics argue that the food industry must re-skill staff to meet unprecedented challenges such as drastic greenhouse gas emission reductions to combat climate change. "This requires a huge skill set," says Lang. "People should be encouraged to retrain. Skills, education and training impacts at all levels. We won't be able to deliver the huge demand for reduction in carbon use otherwise an 80% greenhouse gas reduction [by 2050] from the food system."
He denies that an over-emphasis on sustainability risks overlooking training provision elsewhere, such as engineering or food science. He argues that the challenge embraces every discipline.
Given the desperate need for re-skilling, plus the well-known lack of properly schooled talent in traditional food processing roles, Improve is lobbying government hard to raise the sector's profile. "We have received a very warm welcome," says Matthews. "We have met with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and hope the food industry's position will be recognised and actively encouraged."
There are positive signs, too, from the Tories, who may oust Labour in the General Election. "Their favoured think tank, the Policy Exchange, came down significantly on the work of the Sector Skills Councils. One would have hoped the Conservatives have taken that on board and that it would be reflected in the next government."
Matthews believes the powers that be are leaning towards joint funding with industry for initiatives. The only question is what the proportion of this funding will be 50/50 or more like 30/70 with the lion's share shouldered by industry?
Whatever the split, he is quick to reassure manufacturers. "You can rely on Improve to ensure cutbacks on funding do not impact on the food industry, although we may have to elongate timescales and re-prioritise."
Greater investment from industry in training might be no bad thing, argues Peter Vagg, md of training and consultancy body MCP. He says where individual firms are less financially committed to training, absenteeism on courses increases in his experience. "One of the reasons we came out of the funded business is because where contracts were all funded, you'd turn up and there would only be six people there when you were expecting 12. There isn't the same motivation."
Less funding not a problem for all
What's more, the bigger food and drink companies don't seem to be influenced by lack of external support. "Lack of funding doesn't have much influence with the companies we deal with," says Vagg. Nevertheless, this begs the question: what about small to medium-sized businesses? Vagg does acknowledge some drop in income from training in the past year. "As always, it's one of the first things to go. There is a pick up on numbers coming through now though."
Indeed, not every institution is pessimistic about potential funding cuts. David Grant, professor of logistics and director of the University of Hull Logistics Institute, says: "We're not seeing the kind of situation other universities are where they are closing departments. We're oversubscribed and seeing better quality students."
However, he adds: "There are still little pockets of cash around. I would hate to see these go. I would take the view that in recessionary times you need some stimulus."
Ultimately, he says companies with urgent training needs and without the resources of larger firms needn't despair. Increasing numbers of industry bodies offer support that doesn't break the bank. "Firms should focus on institutions like Efficient Consumer Response and IGD as well as the government. Companies should avail themselves of what goes on with various trade associations, which are undervalued sometimes."
Funding will likely not be resolved until after the General Election. Meanwhile, Improve is pressing ahead with its plans. It's close to developing sustainability standards with employers, which it hopes will inform the development of courses and qualifications. It keeps working to boost take-up of Adult Apprenticeships, which at the end of January had reached 950 in England, 400 in Scotland and 300 in Northern Ireland. And it's shortly supporting the launch of the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing in Scotland, which will support training needs.
As to the future that remains veiled.