However, while 76% of food manufacturers polled in Food Manufacture's annual reader survey felt more positive about the future of their businesses this year than last year, and 65% predicted profit margins would improve, just 26% planned to take on more staff this year than last year.
Marcus Brasier, director at recruitment agency B3, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that this apparent reticence could reflect the fact that the survey was filled in during early to mid-May, a time of particular uncertainty for employers given the hung parliament and subsequent anxiety over what might happen in the budget.
He added: "It was a slow start to the year but we are seeing steady growth now, although there was a bit of a blip April/May time partly due to the volcanic ash and the political uncertainty."
He added: "We are not back to where we were before [the recession], but I'd say we probably will be in six to 12 months. We're seeing the junior jobs coming in but also gradually seeing more senior roles, which is an encouraging sign."
Focus Management Consultants director Stephen Jones was also "cautiously optimistic" about the recruitment market in food manufacturing despite the gloom surrounding the economy, not least because the sector had proved its resilience throughout the recession. "There is much more buoyancy in the market now."
Paul Gargett, managing consultant at Network Recruitment Partnership, said: "The recession for us really kicked in in the summer of 2008, and then things started to pick up mid-2009 after a pretty awful start to the year. Things got a little quiet again in the spring of 2010, but that could have been because of the uncertainty over the election."
Dhrutee Davé, director at Blue Spark Recruitment, added: "Things have definitely picked up from this time last year but there was a slight dip around Easter time. Companies are also promoting people internally into more senior roles and then backfilling the more junior roles."
NPD: Light at the end of the tunnel?
But there was more positive news on the new product development front, with companies now recognising that they could only batten down the hatches for so long, she said.
This also appears to correlate with the results of Food Manufacture’s survey, which revealed that 57% of food manufacturers were planning to invest more in new product development (NPD) this year than last year. Last year, the figure was just 45%.
But things were more subdued in operations, claimed Scott Hutchinson, md at interim management recruitment specialist Hutchinson Consultancy. "Expectations were that a hot summer, coupled with a World Cup would bring record levels of production interim managers to cope with demand. But so far it has not happened. What it comes down to is that you can cut corners in operations, people make do with the staff that they have."
However, he had seen an increase in process development roles, which was an encouraging sign that firms were investing in NPD, he said.
Meanwhile technical recruitment remained "pretty consistent", he said. "While you can cut corners in most other areas, you can't do it with compliance."
Staying put for security reasons
Food manufacturers contacted by FoodManufacture.co.uk presented a mixed picture, with some actively recruiting and others remaining cautious until the economic outlook became clearer.
One interim manager said: "My company will look to reduce numbers overall. There are a few key roles vacant especially in technical throughout the business, but also a lot of people are staying put for security reasons."
Another interim manager added: "Most companies I know are not filling all vacancies and are prepared to leave them open in a 'wait and see' position so the headline vacancy rate in your survey [36% had vacancies in key roles] is probably misleading."
For the full results of Food Manufacture's annual survey, click here.