Apprenticeships in the food sector - a carrot or stigma?

By Jon Poole

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Food and drink

What is your business doing to mark National Apprenticeship Week?
What is your business doing to mark National Apprenticeship Week?
It's National Apprenticeship Week. Did you know this? If so, how are you planning to mark the occasion?

I would guess that for those working in the automotive industry or in retail, aerospace or even in hospitality, the answer to the first question is probably: “yes”.​ In terms of marking the occasion, for these sectors it will probably pass by as just an accepted fact of life. Their attitude is probably: “We need more young talent to join our business so we had better look at recruiting another tranche of apprenticeships – why do we need a week dedicated to it?”

In the food manufacturing sector the response would, in most cases, be very different with few even recognising it is National Apprenticeship Week. For those interested in promoting apprenticeships though, this week at least provides an opportunity to place a special emphasis on pushing their importance and benefits.

The National Apprenticeship Service website currently boasts 22,000 apprenticeship vacancies on offer. I thought I would conduct some crude analysis and so searched ‘food’ as a key word for apprenticeship opportunities in the London region. Out of 355 vacancies in my search, I found just one position in a food processing business.

All 22,000 vacancies

Most of those arising from my search were in foodservice or hospitality. I appreciate this picture may not be quite the same in all regions of the country but I’m sure you will forgive me for not trawling through all 22,000 vacancies to test this.

And yet this is the sector that continues to highlight a critical shortage of skills both now and for the future. Currently in the UK there are about 3,400 graduate places available for students wishing to study food science and technology based courses. Clearly, we cannot rely on this as our only source of new talent for technical roles, particularly as nearly half of these places are taken by foreign students.

So, why is the food sector so slow to recognise the potential to attract and grow its own talent through apprenticeship schemes in the same way many other sectors do?

Attracting new talent through well-structured apprenticeship programmes should be seen as a viable cost effective way of demonstrating the professionalism of our sector and how seriously we take the development of our skilled people. It may not be the only solution but is one that has to form a part of any company’s recruitment plan.

Why is the food processing sector lagging behind in terms of offering apprenticeship places? Is it because of the complexity and bureaucracy involved in offering places? Of course, there is paperwork involved but surely this cannot be more onerous than that required by employers in other sectors?

Perceived stigma

Is there some perceived stigma associated with offering apprenticeships? Again, this doesn’t seem to hold back other sectors which are perceived by many as attractive career choices. As a result of completing many technical apprenticeships, there is now the option to become professionally recognised as a science or engineering technician.

Some of the sector’s leading representative bodies, such as the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and the grocery think tank IGD, have recognised the possible benefits of tapping into apprenticeships. They have been working hard over the past two to three years highlighting apprenticeships and encouraging employers to pledge places and there is no doubt this is moving the sector in the right direction.

As recently as October 2013, skills minister Matthew Hancock confirmed food and drink manufacturing as one of eight sectors to lead apprenticeship reform by developing ground-breaking new standards for food and drink maintenance engineers. FDF is working with government departments to deliver this as part of a new ‘Trailblazers scheme’.  

At the end of the day, it is down to food employers to realise the potential of apprenticeships as a viable recruitment and development tool. And, if you can’t find an apprenticeship programme to meet your needs, then raise this with the providers to ensure that apprenticeships are made available that do.

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