Fennel told Food Manufacture while food and drink processors had continuously strived for health and safety and food safety compliance, retailers had increased pressure on them to reinforce standards during the pandemic.
The real challenge was maintaining that high level of quality, as well as productivity, with lighter workforces – usually as a result of absence due to sickness or self-isolation.
“Factories have lost an awful lot of their normal workforce through different COVID-19 alerts, but have had more demand than ever before,” he explained. “They’re trying to manage all of that while keeping everyone safe and healthy.”
Turning away non-essential staff
As part of efforts to keep employees safe, factories had turned away non-essential workers, said Fennell. As a result, training for many apprentices had been interrupted because their access to sites had been limited.
Not only did this mean that apprentices missed on-the-job training, they also risked not being to complete end-point assessments, Fennell added. These assessments were usually conducted on-site and allowed apprentices to show their learning to examiners through practical applications.
The Government has introduced end-point assessment flexibility, allowing apprentices to complete assessments remotely. However, Fennell said some apprentices might have been unable to use such methods, either because they lacked the technology, or because they were from an older generation not trained to use such systems.
While apprentices looking to take end-point assessments now had a greater chance of doing so, those still training and unable to access the factory risked not getting the training they need.
“Employers are heading towards Christmas and their demand is going to increase even further,” Fennell continued. “The likelihood is that apprenticeships will be delayed and deferred until the New Year.
“They might have been due to finish this autumn, but that will likely be deferred into spring 2021. As a result a bottleneck has started to appear and there will be a real capacity challenge early in the New Year when there’s high demand. They won’t be lost, but there will be some delay due to the current situation.”
Despite these setbacks, apprentice recruitment has remained strong across the food industry, although some areas – such as suppliers to the hospitality and foodservice sectors – have had to scale back in response to COVID-19 lockdown measures.
Fennell pointed out there were a lot of incentives for manufacturers to take on apprentices even during the busy run-up to Christmas.
Winter recovery plan
As part of the Chancellor’s winter economy plan, the Government has introduced a range of recruitment incentives for employers to take on apprentices. Though aimed at the hospitality and retail sectors, manufacturers can also benefit.
“Every apprentice recruited before the end of January 2021, the employer is able to recoup up to £3,000 is they’re under 25 – if they’re over 25 you get £1,500. The beauty of it is the food industry has benefitted out of that because it’s never really stopped volume wise, by and large,” Fennell added.
“They are always going to recruit anyway this autumn/winter. It just means this year they’ll be able to recruit people and actually claw back that amount of funding for each person. If you’re a larger employer, you’re generating quite a lot of money in Government incentives. It’s not the sort of over they had this time last year.”