Train reaction

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Industry Apprenticeship Vocational education Angela coleshill Food and drink federation

Courses need to meet firms' needs
Courses need to meet firms' needs
The industry needs more skilled employees and it needs them quickly. But is there a coherent training and careers regime? Gary Scattergood investigates

Key points

The numbers speak for themselves: the food and drink manufacturing sector directly employs 400,000 people in the UK but needs to find an extra 170,300 new workers by 2020. Add to that the fact the industry has an ageing workforce and suffers from a number of skills gaps – namely in science, technology and engineering – and the scale of the recruitment and retention task is clear.

The challenge might be great, but at least it is one many in the industry are now tackling head on. Over the past couple of years there has been a concerted drive to create more apprenticeships with the latest data from the National Apprenticeship Service and the sector skills council, Improve, showing that, between August 2011 and December 2012, there have been 5,281 apprenticeship starts in food and drink manufacturing businesses across the country. This represents a trebling in numbers, with experts believing that figures for this year will show a quadrupling.

Justine Fosh, the chief executive of The National Skills Academy for Food and Drink (NSAFD) and Improve puts the apprenticeship drive down to three factors.

Key factors (Return to top)

“The increase in numbers is partly because we now have a lot more variety in the range of apprenticeship schemes. You can now, for example, do one in productivity and lean manufacturing, which just wasn’t available a few years ago. Secondly, there has been a real funding drive behind it too because it is a flagship government policy and, thirdly, I think industry has now recognised the scale of the challenge it faces and has to act.”

According to Spencer Mehlman, md of the careers advice organisation Not Going to Uni, food manufacturers have realised that apprentices not only solve a short-term problem in getting people through the door, but their skill set can then be moulded to suit the business’s needs, he says.

Mehlman – who has worked alongside the likes of Nestlé, Mars, Arla Foods and Whitbread – adds: “The feeling from the clients we work with is that this route creates a lot more loyalty. With a university graduate, they might have higher initial skills, but they’ll probably have little experience of work, command higher starting salaries and, after 18 months, they often start to look around for their next job.”

While the industry has stepped up to the plate in terms of recruiting apprentices, Angela Coleshill, director of employment, skills and corporate services at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) warns that this is not the end of the journey. She is predicting a greater focus on outcomes and ensuring apprentices progress to the highest level possible.

“Our members are saying that now we have these schemes up and running we need to make sure the training provision and providers are good enough. It’s one thing taking someone on at level 1 or 2 but it needs to be sustainable and we need to get higher-level apprenticeships – not just juniors.”

It’s a view echoed by Fosh, who is a big supporter of the higher level apprenticeship scheme, which allows students to achieve weighty qualifications through a vocational route.

“I think, over time, there will be two different routes into the industry: either to go to university and come in or work your way up through apprenticeships to get to the same level you would have done had you gone to university. That’s the long-term aim,”​ she says.

College and degree course clash  (Return to top)

With industry clearly focusing on apprenticeships to solve some of its training shortcomings, what impact is this having on college and degree courses? After all, if a student can achieve a degree-level qualification through an apprenticeship route while simultaneously contributing to the business and earning a wage, isn’t this preferable for manufacturers and students alike?

Mehlman’s views are clear: “Higher apprenticeships are a great way for people to get a degree and for businesses to make sure their needs are met. Unfortunately, too many degree courses have been doing the same stuff for years and trying to change them to meet industry needs is like trying to turn around a tanker.”

Fosh is more diplomatic, but concedes that some university courses will have to change if they are to meet the needs of manufacturers.

She says there has been a gradual shift towards “more generic”​ courses, especially in food science and technology. With fewer students attracted to these courses, institutions have attempted to broaden the curriculum to include subjects like health and wellbeing and sports nutrition in a bid to increase interest.

“To be honest, when graduates have come through in the past, the food industry has had to retrain them,”​ she adds.

In a bid to tackle this, the industry is playing a leading role in shaping degree courses that meet its needs. Coleshill at the FDF highlights the masters degree in Food and Drink Engineering that starts at Sheffield Hallam University next year as a prime example.

“The curriculum has been developed in detail with industry. We will have industry leaders giving guest seminars while the students will spend plenty of time in industry,”​ she says.

Fosh also points to the Eden foundation degree in Dairy Technology – now in its fourth year at Reaseheath College in Nantwich – as another success story where industry has helped to shape course content.

The programme, a collaboration between Arla Foods, Müller-Wiseman, Dairy Crest, First Milk, Müller and Cotteswold Dairy has seen training standards in dairy go from being one of the poorest in Europe to the best.

“Companies here are working together on programmes the whole industry needs, that no single company could provide on its own,” ​adds Fosh, who wants to see other industry sectors following this approach.

Setting the agenda  (Return to top)

Looking to the future, it is highly likely that industry is going to need to take even greater responsibility for the skills and training agenda if its requirements are to be met.

The NSAFD currently has a bid in with government to set up one of its flagship industrial partnerships. The scheme, backed by ministers, enables businesses to take more control over the training environment.

“As a business involved, you would get funding to deliver the training you want to respond to the needs you have,” ​says Fosh.

Following on the theme of taking control of the agenda, Coleshill believes the industry- shaped engineering course at Sheffield Hallam University could eventually be rolled out, under licence, to other institutions.

Similarly, there is potential for other courses to be set up along similar lines in different subjects, if industry identifies a need. Meanwhile, colleges, universities and a whole raft of other training providers can expect to come under further pressure to adapt to industry’s agenda.

“We need flexible models that don’t just cater for young people in full-time education but also people on block release, day release or evening classes. It's almost going back a bit to the way things used to be done,” ​says Fosh.

It’s something of a surprise, then, that one of the courses that seems to meet these objectives – the Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education’s foundation degree in Food Manufacturing Management: a stepping stone qualification that enables students to progress to a full degree course – is being wound down.

Focus on apprenticeships  (Return to top)

Hilary Hamer, who helped establish the course in 2002 and is still involved today, said the rise in tuition fees and the increasing focus on apprenticeships were the key factors at play.

“The government and industry seems keen that people who go down the apprenticeship route have the potential to achieve the same level of qualifications as someone who has completed a degree, and it strikes me the foundation degree could be a way of achieving that. However, there is a big shift going on towards more vocational training and things seem to be in a state of flux,”​ she added.

It is clear the whole training and careers landscape is shifting, but, adds Coleshill, the overriding priority for the industry is to do more to attract young people to manufacturing through whichever route works best.

“In the early days people saw skill as something that was nice to have but not much of a priority. Now businesses are working together across the board,” ​she adds.

Be it through apprenticeships, devising courses, collaborative working and seeking to control its own destiny, the industry is clearly making considerable efforts. However, it’s clear that it can't take its foot off the pedal if those ambitious 2020 targets are to be met.

“The scale of the challenge is huge," ​adds Fosh. ​Everyone is going to have to play a part.”

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1 comment


Posted by frank cole,

I am an experienced engineering manager with many years experience working for blue chip companies supplying all the major high st names with a variety of foods. The problem is today that all companies go through recruitment agencies, who in my experience sit there arses and do nothing.

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