Food manufacturing has an image problem. Too often, bright-eyed school-leavers are deterred from pursuing a career in food and drink by the perception of an industry filled with repetitive tasks at a conveyor belt, or unsocial working hours with the promise of low pay.
Yet, for those taking the chance of stepping into the food and drink world, via courses provided by Bridgwater & Taunton College, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The college’s package of food industry apprenticeships – including Level 2 process operator, Level 2 production chef and Level 3 process supervisor – offer the next generation of food professionals a stepping stone towards a successful career in the industry. Heading it all is Tracy Clement, curriculum manager for agricultural food and land management work-based learning.
Following a recent ‘outstanding’ rating for its apprenticeships from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) and securing recognition from the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD), the only issue holding the college back is the low number of workers put into the system by employers.
“We are struggling to get food manufacturers involved in these standards,” Clement explains. “They are used to having a migrant population – low-skilled, low-paid – and getting them to invest in young people and train them is a hard task.”
Working with the NSAFD
Clement hopes that working with the NSAFD will open up opportunities to collaborate more with food and drink businesses. “Employers are paying into the NSAFD, so they want to get from them those [learning providers] they have approved, but we also have to pay the NSAFD in order to [be approved].”
Working closely with some of the biggest names in food and drink is key to the college providing a complete training package for the food and drink industry. Somerset cider maker Thatchers, one of Bridgwater & Taunton college’s most frequent collaborators, is one such company. As Clement explains: “Thatchers Cider has been absolutely amazing. They were our apprentice employer of the year, taking on our first food and drink process operators, and they have sensibly taken our advice and gone for that as the base programme [for training staff].
“From that Level 2, they will then decide who is going to go into food engineering or who is going to go on to Level 3 and use that as a baseline to filter, sort and train – and they’re doing an amazing job.”
While the college also works closely with ABP, The Vegan Pantry, Filbert’s Fine Foods and Mastan Foods, it struggles to get food manufacturers involved with apprenticeship standards or persuade them to understand and utilise the Apprenticeship Levy to its fullest potential. Since its introduction in 2016, multiple employers have misunderstood the Levy, claims Clement.
“Many of the big businesses I’ve spoken to just treat the Levy as a tax and don’t get involved or worry about it. So, it’s about getting the word out and saying, ‘Look, these programmes are out there, you’ve got your Levy, so why not spend it?’
“If you’re a smaller employer, then you’re going to be paying just 5% of the cost of the training. We provide all the training, the support and you will have a much more stable base of employees and people to upskill later on.”
Highlighting career opportunities
Yet, no matter how hard the college works to craft industry-leading training courses, the problem remains that schools are simply not doing enough to highlight to pupils the career opportunities available in
food and drink. “The careers advice in schools doesn’t really exist,” Clement laments. “The schools want them to do A-levels and/or go on to university. The general understanding of the jobs that are out there and what they pay doesn’t seem to get through to young people.
“The fact that there are good jobs in food manufacturing seems to be a very poorly kept secret – especially for youngsters.”
This has had a knock-on effect on the courses the college has been able to offer. A lack of numbers led to it shutting down several full-time food technology courses, a body blow to an industry that needs all the technologists it can get. Worse still is the poor handling of food technology by primary and secondary education, Clement claims.
“Food technology as a GCSE is a misnomer – the food tech [taught in schools] is not scientifically analysing nutrition and ingredients in products. These are highly paid jobs, but nobody applied [for the courses].”
Ageing population in butchery
A prime example of the lack of interest young people have in the food and drink industry is butchery, which is feeling the effects of an ageing population. With the average age of a butcher in the 60s, Clement and her team have the tough task of making these jobs appealing to the next generation.
“It’s very difficult to explain to a 16-year-old, ‘Well, why don’t you go and be a butcher in a large food processing plant?’. It’s not the easiest sell,” she says. “But we’ve had huge success with students who have struggled at school, have additional learning needs, were just looking for an income, didn’t know what to do and have come through the Job Centre.
“Many have been homeless or had drug problems and a huge amount of work has gone into working with those students to really change their lives. We’ve seen them go from living in the YMCA to earning £600 a week within a year.”
With the UK still threatening to crash out of the EU, risking losing access to European workers, and older workers approaching retirement,
there is a desperate need for a new generation of workers to take up roles in the food and drink industry. “We really need to be bringing our young people into these industries,” Clement concludes.