Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve, the sector skills council, told the seminar staged at the Foodex event: "We have 137,000 vacancies to fill over the next five years. When we look at the demography of our sector, too many young people will retire and there not enough young people to replace them."
Matthews, chairman of the HR Forum, added: "Young people's perception of food and drink manufacturing is at best ambivalent and at worst negative. It is a strident question we need to answer urgently."
Jim Moseley, president of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), warned against suggestions that the skills gap could be filled by recruits from job centres. "Most unemployed workers would not see food as a career choice," he said.
But neither do many young people. "Research had shown that four problems put young people off: production lines, [and perceptions of] poor prospects, poor pay and poor dress sense," he said.
The FDF had set about busting those myths with its recently-launched digital campaign. The campaign featured shock videos, with names such as Chilli Baby and Sugar Rush, in an attempt to promote the sector to 16 -18 year-olds. "The days of handing out career leaflets are over," he said.
Its Taste Success initiative also aimed to show young people the range of career opportunities and rewards available in food and drink manufacturing.
Further insight into careers in the food sector will come in June this year with the government's flagship See Inside Manufacturing scheme. Food and drinks manufacturers, along with aerospace and the automotive industry, have been selected to welcome teenagers into their work spaces to understand more about employment opportunities.
Moseley said the FDF also plans to work with universities to deliver graduates with the food and drink skills that the industry required.
Matthews pointed out that while higher university tuition fees were diminishing the pool of potential university recruits, they may also lead more people to consider applying for an apprenticeship.
"The increasing debt associated with higher education might be an opportunity to take up vocational courses," he said.
One young person who was thriving in an apprenticeship was HR Forum speaker, 20-year old Sam Richards. Richards, currently in the final year of an engineering apprenticeship at Nestlé’s Tutbury plant, said the industry should do far more to reach out to young people. "When I left school, I didn't know anything about food manufacturing. And I didn't know that the Nestlé factory was only 20 minutes down the road from where I lived," he said.
"There's not enough advertising about jobs in the industry. Young people should go into a factory and see the machines working and then they would realise how exciting it can be."
Sense of excitement
Jon Poole, ceo at the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST), appreciated the sense of excitement Richards conveyed about working in food manufacturing. "It's good to hear the word 'exciting' used twice by Sam Richards," he said.
But he felt more could be done to offer a more co-ordinated message to young people. "There are so many schemes and items of best practice, it can be confusing for young people to find their way through. The most effective way to tackle the macro issues is by working together ... on combined image improvement," he said.
The HR Forum was organised by FoodManufacture.co.uk's sister title Food Manufacture and the IFST at the Foodex event, National Exhibition Centre, on March 26.
Watch out for more articles and video news from the HR Forum next week.
Meanwhile, to view hundreds of top jobs in food and drink manufacturing, including operations, science and management, visit Foodmanjobs or click here.