Challenges of food sector recruitment in a post-pandemic world

By Tom Apperley

- Last updated on GMT

The pandemic has led to a number of recruitment challenges for food and drink firms
The pandemic has led to a number of recruitment challenges for food and drink firms

Related tags Training & recruitment

Tom Apperley at Harper Search looks back at the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on recruitment in the food and drink sector and what the labour market will look like in 2023 and beyond.

This year marks the 20th​ anniversary of my career in the food industry. In those two decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to have placed a lot of talented people into some great jobs. It’s been a hell of journey, with plenty of ups and downs.

Whatever the minor fluctuations, the market has generally been kind to me and my teams through those years. Consistency and buoyancy are two words I would use to describe my experience of this period, with the lean times generally not coming too often, or lasting too long.

That being said, I’m sure I’m not the only veteran of this industry who has found themselves asking – and being asked – one question on an almost daily basis over the course of the last 12 months: “Why is it so hard to hire great talent at the moment?”

At the risk of giving a politician’s answer, I think the answer is multi-faceted, with a number of complicating factors at play.

So, if you aren’t one of the thousand-odd professionals that I’ve shared my views on this with (or if you are but need reminding) I hope you’ll enjoy my take on why things are so challenging in the current climate.  

First off, let’s address the elephant in the room. In this case, the elephant is a well-known strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome:


You’re bored of hearing about it as an excuse for just about every aspect of our national malaise. Quite frankly so am I. But there is no denying that covid has had a deleterious impact on our industry.

Covid has disrupted the talent landscape like nothing else in my two decades in the industry. Disruption and unpredictability are no good for an industry which craves consistency and healthy, well-managed churn.  

In true ‘butterfly effect’-fashion, the impact of Covid has affected hiring and recruitment in several ways.

Early retirement

As we all know by now, the impact of the pandemic was to recast the way that we think about work. There has never been such low unemployment coupled with such a skyrocketing number of vacancies (according to figures from the ONS, a near 500,000 talented folks left the workforce in the last few years).

Many people aged 50 and over, many of them with mortgages paid off and money in the bank, have left the rat-race and won’t be returning. With the food industry’s famed lack of succession planning, this led to a huge gap, and not just at executive level.

Fear of Loss

Our nature dictates that in uncertain times, we cling to stability. Covid caused massive uncertainty for all of us. For a lot of people, the next big constant in their life (after family and friends) is their jobs and careers.

This meant that people were more likely than ever to cleave to their current job, meaning an inevitable lack of vacancies in the market.

Company Loyalty

It’s not a novel concept that employees want to be valued by their employer and will – with some exceptions – show greater loyalty when they are treated well. We saw a big increase in people genuinely valuing how they were treated during the pandemic, and therefore feeling that they “owed” their employers some loyalty payback. Again, not necessarily great news for the recruitment industry.

Cost of living

Can I squeeze a second elephant in this room? Sky-high inflation (thanks a lot, Disastrous Mini-Budget) and record-low unemployment equals employees looking for opportunities in what they perceive to be more rewarding sectors.

Critical functions such as commercial, technical, and operations, people with broad enough experience found themselves able to jump ship, leaving a gaps that some businesses are finding challenging to plug.

Counter Offers

Okay, so it’s not like brinkmanship was invented two years ago, but the rise in counter offers in that time has been unprecedented.

My team and I calculated that 8 out of 10 candidates across levels were made a rebuffed financial package to stay put, and a surprisingly high number (around half) took it! Ultimately, everything comes down to individual motivation, but the old phrase “money talks” has perhaps never seemed so relevant than today.

Into 2023 and beyond

My prediction for the next 12 months? Much of the same, for good or ill. An extremely competitive market for talent across most functions is foreseeable for the next 18 months. So when you go to market for that new hire make sure

  1. you’re currently paying market rate (or above)
  2. have clear career paths for people and
  3. always keep people engaged.

Good luck.

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