Across the UK, businesses are facing the problem of an ageing workforce. The traditionally poor image of the food sector as a place of employment means food manufacturers must face an even harsher view.
"Young people do not necessarily see the industry as a career of choice and therefore there is a struggle to recruit good quality people," says Improve's (the sector skills council for food and drink manufacturing in the UK) skills solutions director, Justine Tosch.
The Food and Drink Federation's (FDF's) director of HR Angela Coleshill explains further: "We have an ageing workforce who are doing a good hands-on job for us but we don't have the pipeline of young people that could potentially be our team leaders or managers for the future."
"Traditionally, students have said, 'Would my parents be happy for me to be working in a factory?'" she adds.
The industry has traditionally relied on migrants to do most of its lower level work. And while the FDF wants to make the industry more self-sufficient and UK-focused, it does not foresee future shortages.
On the other side, the FDF reported that most companies were not overly troubled when it came to filling the higher-end jobs either. It is in the middle levels of management that the real shortages will occur.
Coleshill believes that companies are going to struggle with "getting young people with the right attitude and basic education who are interested in starting at the bottom, at the technical level, and working their way up through the route of apprenticeships or foundation degrees".
The start of the yellow brick road
But both the FDF and Improve believe things are slowly changing. Coleshill estimates that while not long ago, one in four positions in food manufacturing would be considered 'hard to fill' the number has now dropped to one in five. Both organisations, along with many others are working towards fixing the industry's image and reversing what is not so much a brain drain as the potential for a future 'brain absence'.
What Improve feels is key to leading the industry out of the land of bleak recruitment and into a bright technicolour future is a new and not yet officially announced project called the sector route-way for food manufacturing.
The project in conjunction with the coalition government and a number of businesses aims to implement two- and eight-week courses designed to give both the long-term and recently unemployed the pre-employment training and industry-specific skills they need to become more attractive to employers and get back into work.
Tosch says: "The idea is that when they do their pre-employment training they will be able to pick up things like their food safety training and a bit of health and safety training. They'll know about protective clothing and then they can choose different industry types to get exposure to. So they may, say, be able to choose to go to a bakery, an abattoir or a ready meals factory to get experience there. And by doing that, the individual gets a taste of what the industry is like."
What is equally important about the sector route-way is that many of the aspects of learning as well as a number of the qualifications can be transferred into an apprenticeship, giving a helping hand on to the next step in the career path. "And the future is very much about apprenticeships for our industry," adds Tosch.
The government-funded National Apprenticeship Service's communications coordinator Shagufta Mustafa, unsurprisingly, could not agree more. "The real value of apprenticeships is that they are designed to provide exactly the skills that employers are looking for," she says. "The frameworks that apprentices follow are designed by sector skills councils with the help of employers, so they match the skills required for the specific role.
"Recruiting an apprentice can be a way to 'grow your own graduate', providing a long term and more cost-effective approach, that gives companies the opportunity to develop and mould their employees in a way that suits their needs, right from the start."
Employers are no less aware of the potential crisis facing the industry in the near future. While they have little control over attracting new candidates to the sector, they have set up a number of collaborative efforts and increased their focus on in-house training.
Just one of the many examples of academic and business collaboration is the recently launched Scottish Fellowship in Food and Drink. Developed with help from Scottish beef producer AK Stoddart, the fellowship on offer from the University of Abertay in Dundee gives employees looking to climb a chance to improve their professional qualifications through intense week-long sessions over the course of a year and forms a foundation for further learning, such as a full university degree.
In-house learning has also benefited from collaboration. Sector skills councils, along with regional development agencies and the government, worked with companies to produce the Food Passport, which "aims to give learning support using a managed online learning environment. It gives the employee 24h access to an extensive collection of learning materials, enabling them to gain recognised industry-related qualifications", according to industry recruitment company HR GO's business director Andy Hart.
More and more companies are seeing training and internal promotion as the best way to fill higher positions. As the number of unskilled jobs decreases, businesses are finding any costs expended on further training is more than paid back through increased usefulness and flexibility.
"Research from Improve indicates that the type of job in our industry is changing. There will be fewer jobs in our industry at the lower level of skills," says Tosch. "An employee who was supervising a relatively automated job might have more skills being passed down to them: to enable them to do minor engineering works and maintenance tasks, for example."
Offering increased personal learning through the attainment of National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) is looking increasingly appealing to employers.
HR GO Recruitment's Kent regional director, Jo Anne Smith says about a client: "During the time we have recruited for [the company] 20 HR GO Recruitment temporary staff have achieved an NVQ. Approximately 40 temporary workers have obtained permanent employment with the client. The majority of training required to undertake the duties of the position was provided in house."
United Biscuits is one firm that has been bitten by the in-house training bug. As well as setting higher targets for the number of apprentices employed and reinstituting a graduate employment scheme after a seven-year hiatus, it has also built nine employee learning centres (with another two on the way) that have allowed over 700 employees to take NVQs in 2009, according to UB's communications manager Keren McCarron.
Reaching the Emerald City
Examples such as UB show that manufacturers that adapt their own hiring and training policies to match the changing nature of the jobs market reap the benefits.
Less demand for unskilled labour brought about by increasing technological innovation means many positions are now redundant. But who would know how to manage better than an employee with the experience brought about by time already served? NVQs and fellowships provide the opportunity for these staff to pick up the qualifications necessary to take that next step up and give the company an easy replacement for one of those 'one in five' positions that are so hard to fill.
Most of these initiatives to increase qualifications and attract more apprentices are only in their infancy. It will be a few years before the results are seen. However, the more action that is taken now, the less of a bump there will be as one generation of manufacturers recedes and another takes its place at the top.
The recent Advanced Apprentice of the Year winner Sunè Brunton, 26, is a technical assistant at Martins Foods, a bakery that produces cakes and buns for supermarkets such as Asda and Sainsbury.
The Southport-based Brunton joined the bakery in 2004 when it was known as Mellors. She started on the production line before moving into quality assurance and then new product development.
Her advanced apprenticeship allowed her to become technical assistant and she has now been accepted into the University of Central Lancashire to study for a Master's degree in food safety management with the aim of becoming a technical manager. She took a year to complete a Level 2 Apprenticeship (equivalent to two A-level passes), then started a Level 3 Advanced Apprenticeship (the highest level) after a year's gap.
The Advance Apprentice of the Year award, organised by the National Apprenticeship Service, was open to apprentices from all sectors. It is the second time in four years that a candidate from the food and drink sector has won it.
Food and drink sector skills council Improve is now working on developing Proficiency Apprenticeships that will be tailored to a new framework specific to food and drink manufacturing. Improve hopes this will offer employers and trainees more flexibility to choose the content, process and delivery of training.