As long as you already possess the experience, it is a good time to be working in the food and drink industry, despite the still fairly gloomy outlook for the surrounding economy. Although competition for positions is keeping wages down for operational roles, where numbers of candidates seeking positions outstrips available openings, wages are on the rise for other skilled jobs and management posts, according to a salary survey conducted by CPA Recruitment. Shortages of high quality candidates combined with the recession have created uncertainty, which is preventing people from changing jobs. This has helped to drive salaries up.
Peter Thompson of recruitment company New Chapter Consulting says: "It is at the top end of the market where significant salary increases can be found and I think it is keeping people within the industry. Bonuses and commission structures are being tailored to keep people within the FMCG [fast moving consumer goods] sector anyway. In the depths of the downturn, salaries were flat lining, but in the last 12 months we've seen quite a significant increase, which probably stems from the demand for talent at the moment."
Human Resources director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Angela Coleshill agrees. "We've found that we are paying above the rest of the economy in terms of salary levels. We're pretty competitive and attractive at the senior end," she says.
The recession had a strange effect on the food industry's job market. Coleshill says that most firms stopped hiring permanent employees at the lower end of the spectrum. If they need more hands, they fill them with temporary or agency workers. She also claims there have been no shortage of candidates for operational positions.
While the implication of all this is bleak for unskilled or semi-skilled workers as well as those involved in operations, people in technical, quality and new product development areas find themselves in a much better position, as do technologists, food scientists and engineers.
A spokesman for agency Quantica Search and Supply says that he has seen increases in salaries for these areas. "It is a candidate driven marketplace," he say. "Companies are having to pay high to bring a good quality candidate in, because although there are a lot of candidates out there in number, there are not a lot of high-quality candidates."
Jamie Stephenson at consultancy Michael Page International tends to agree. While salaries in food manufacturing are a little below that of some other technical engineering sectors, the situation is improving. This is because throughout the recession, companies have attempted to invest more in capital equipment leading to greater demand for project engineering managers on a permanent and interim basis, he says.
"Equipment demand in the food sector is up," remarks Stephenson. "Some of our clients are trying to go with more automated processes to cut costs in the longer-term, which requires more highly skilled engineers."
Holding the cards
Because it is companies that must woo skilled candidates, the sector has seen inflation in wages. Quantica's spokesman says that most candidates will have the choice between two or three roles and will be able to decide which best fits their needs, forcing companies to offer hyper-competitive salaries.
Thompson agrees: "We've got more positions than we have candidates to fill them. People used to rely too much on a recruitment consultancy's database and expect them to be able to give them a vacancy and then get four or five candidates within 48 hours. Now that's just not the case. You have to be a bit more proactive and go out and find these people."
This has led to an increasing role for headhunters in the food manufacturing sector, especially for positions requiring greater experience. Thompson says: "When very specialist skills are required, for example like a research and development role I'm recruiting for at the moment, the pond you're fishing into is very limited."
To compound the issue, companies are becoming more risk averse when it comes to employing staff that may need training or time to come up to speed. Stephenson says: "Clients are invariably sticking to what they know. They may give lip service to employing someone from outside but they'll generally stick to their sector. "From what I've been involved in over the last 12 months, the candidate that has had prior experience with a competitor or within a similar business has got the job."
Uncertainty in the market is also making people more reluctant to change jobs, unlike in the past, according to Thompson. In order to reach potential candidates who are not actively sending their CVs around to every employer, consultancies have to go out and look for them.
Thompson adds: "You don't need deep pockets necessarily but there has to be some kind of financial incentive for those people to move; some significant carrot." Stephenson agrees. The expectations of candidates are much higher today, he says. They would not consider a move unless it was a near perfect fit, making them far more choosy than previously.
Match and raise
Competition for the best staff has also led to companies offering incentives for people they can't afford to lose staff retention is the name of the game. Because it is so tough to replace staff, firms are doing everything in their power to keep them, says the spokesman for Quantica.
Stephenson gives an example: "I've had a candidate recently who was offered a perfect job with a 10 grand increase on his salary and he went back to his employer and they turned around and offered him a 15 grand increase. They want to retain skills that they've built up."
Thompson believes this has led to situations where an employee's cost has been inflated beyond his value, leading to the employer paying above the odds to keep them.
Changes in corporate culture are exacerbating this trend, says Thompson. "Companies don't simply want 'bums on seats' anymore. They want someone that is going to make a significant impact to their business. Some will try to get people on the cheap but I don't think that's what most companies want. They want someone who will make an impact, whether that's an innovative new product or someone who can steer them through the minefields of audits."
Headhunting may be on the rise, but it does not necessarily mean that a company will get who they want. Regional variances do not have a big enough effect on take-home pay to make some moves worthwhile.
For instance, the southeast offers roughly 10% higher salaries than the Midlands where he recruits, says Stephenson. But he does not think an employee working a similar job in the southeast would be able to take home 10% more than a candidate in the Midlands, especially when the increases in cost of living between regions is taken into account.
During the recession, people have been less inclined to relocate as part of changing jobs. Stephenson says: "It's not a matter of willingness. We have candidates who are willing to do it, but from a financial perspective they just aren't able to commit to it."
He gives an example of a candidate who was originally willing to relocate before calculating the move would cost him double the amount of assistance on offer.
While wages may be on the rise, pensions lag behind. Company pension contributions are pretty low in the food industry; non-existent in some cases, opines Stephenson.
Another consultant says that although 75-80% of the companies in the sector offer some form of pension and health benefits, some smaller companies cannot afford it.
Coleshill says that despite its image, the food sector offers attractive holiday, maternity and paternity leave, but she agrees that pension benefits have fallen as final salary schemes have closed, being replaced by less generous money purchase schemes, which depend on the vagaries of the financial markets.
Thus, on the pensions front, news is not as bright as it once was. Most consultants agree with Coleshill that while final salary pension schemes might still be in place for existing staff, for new recruits they have largely disappeared. But this situation is not unique to the food and drink industry.
A spokeswoman for AIM Consultants, which deals with the higher end of recruitment, disagrees. She says many companies still offer final salary pensions, it is just a matter of locating them and negotiating the package.
However, the burden of existing final salary pension scheme commitments pose a potential timebomb for many food and drink manufacturers, with around 30% of the workforce expected to retire in the sector over the next 15 years, warns Coleshill.
Whether these companies will be able to meet their obligations under this future financial threat remains to be seen, but it is likely to force a number under.
For employees now however, opportunities are bright. Salaries are on the rise and even the economy is starting to show signs of recovery.
Why graduates are holding all the cards
Companies are finding graduates hard to come by at any price. Candidates coming into the industry in the next few years can expect to be a highly sought after breed.
Human Resources director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), Angela Coleshill says the shortages of new candidates especially technician team-leaders, engineers and food scientists and technologists will grow over the next five or six years. Currently there is only a trickle of replacements coming in from colleges and with many technical staff ageing, demand for younger blood will only go up.
"We do have a particular problem with a shortage of engineers," says Coleshill, "One of the reasons for that is we struggle to get technical people to think of food rather than more traditional engineering fields like automotive and the aerospace industry."
But things may improve. Not only is the industry attempting to promote itself to younger people, but the amount of exposure food has been getting on television will also prove extremely beneficial, according to recruitment company New Chapter Consulting's Peter Thompson. He says that not only is it good that many food or chef-led programmes are being aired on TV, but it is important that there are a lot showing people building brands on the back of their ability to work with food.
At the moment, however, careers advice even for those interested in getting into the sector is minimal.
A spokeswoman for Improve, the sector skills council for the food and drink manufacturing sector, says that careers guidance for all ages is a bit of a black hole. She hopes that the government will help to address this problem, but currently there is no-one directly responsible for it.
Improve has a careers page on its website but that will soon be removed as the council is only responsible for organising and promoting training. Improve's spokeswoman says that generally individual institutions advise their students on further careers but there is no over-arching guide.
Coleshill says that the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) provides a more generic guide to future career moves and that the FDF is working with the IFST to expand that.
She says the FDF will also publish a careers directory in January to help correct the situation.