How can we solve the recruitment crisis?

By William Dodds

- Last updated on GMT

Business Leaders' Forum attendees discuss labour shortages in the food and drink sector. Credit: Jim Winslet
Business Leaders' Forum attendees discuss labour shortages in the food and drink sector. Credit: Jim Winslet
Recruitment and labour shortages was on the agenda at Business Leaders’ Forum on 13 June 2024, with senior figures from across the food and drink industry offering their insights and possible solutions.

According to a study conducted by software developer Visual Components in 2023, more than a third of manufacturing businesses cited hiring new staff as one of their biggest challenges.

At the same time, over half admitted they’re unable to replace ‘lost knowledge’ when skilled professionals leave or retire.

To invest, or not to invest

The impact of Covid was, of course, referenced by the delegates at this year’s Business Leaders’ Forum as a major influencer.

One attendee explained that the way in which businesses operate has fundamentally changed across different sectors since the pandemic. However, in their experience, young people (the cohort that many in the sector have struggled to attract) still prefer the 9-5 working hours that are less common in the food sector.

“Recruitment of young people depends on the environment,”​ they explained.

“Young people are keen to attend a busy office with an engaging culture rather than looking for flexibility, which older people with kids may prioritise.”

Another attendee retorted by stating that while factors such as working hours and culture undoubtedly matter, the F&B industry has been too inactive in getting to the root causes of labour shortages.

“Over the past 15 years, the F&B sector has talked about recruitment as being in crisis but few have been willing to act,”​ the guest said.

“There are more pressing issues which means that it keeps getting put to the back of the agenda as it is a more long-term investment that needs to take place.”

A lack of investment in hiring is not the only area in which funding is lacking. According to the Food and Drink Federation, food and drink manufacturing investment has fallen by 30% since 2019 – a figure that is inextricably linked to hiring difficulties.

Building on this point, an attendee commented: “Ability to hire successfully also depends on the size of the company. Larger companies can invest more in their processes and have success as a result, but smaller firms may not have the same resources to perform such a wide search.”

Another added: “Small firms cannot prioritise recruitment because staff will have to focus on so many other things. This means the same amount of attention cannot be put into the process and this limits our ability to compete.”

In addition to low investment levels impacting hiring, it has also slowed down the adoption of automation technology. While automation can never fully replace the role of humans, a guest explained that the use of machinery can reduce a firm’s reliance on labour.

“Machines don’t need time off or get sick,”​ they said.

“People being away can create huge issues, but this is less often the case with automated technology in an industry where production takes place every day. Finding this balance is important.”

Hire based on traits, not experience

Moving on, the discussion touched on hiring practices and the best approach for identifying the type of people that will perform well and stay with the company.

“Firms are depending on young people to have experience and this is limiting opportunities,”​ argued one attendee.

“However, working with universities would enable companies that are looking for students to make connections and provide greater awareness for the careers that exist. Intake though is largely international, with very few UK students attracted to food courses.”

Several guests agreed that hiring based on experience was a failed model and that firms would be better served looking for skills and personality traits during the hiring process.

“Experienced based hiring has around a 50% success rate, but this is far higher for personality based hiring,”​ said an attendee.

“Knowledge can be taught during a training programme, but it is impossible to fundamentally change their aptitude, personality and behaviour.”

Another attendee reflecting on their own hiring process which focuses on each candidate's “trainability”​ rather than their experience in the sector.

“We have managed to retain all new staff members almost a year after implementing such a strategy,”​ they recalled.

“We now conduct quarterly check ins with all our staff based on the feedback from exit interviews, which is part of our effort to be more proactive in retaining staff. The whole process has been quite revealing and offered practical ways of making improvements that can be actioned in a couple of weeks.”

An attendee summarised the discussion well, stating that there is “no one size fits all for recruitment”, ​but called on their fellow F&B manufacturing leaders to be willing to be adaptable and flexible.

Any other business

To conclude the session, host and Food Manufacture editor, Bethan Grylls, went around the room to get some final thoughts on other ways in which the sector can implement better hiring strategies.

“It is important to take advantage of the apprenticeship levy to get people into the organisation and uncover talent, leaving no stone unturned,”​ said one guest.

Another argued that firms need to be smarter with how they frame roles in adverts.

“Don’t use overly technical or old fashioned language,”​ they said.

“Use terms that appeal and embody the entire role, but without misrepresenting it.”

When hiring and training young people in particular, one attendee said the sector can often underestimate what they offer.

“Younger people are tech natives and often have skills that they can bring to the business that perhaps firms are unaware of,”​ they said.

“Video can also be a useful tool for training. Allows people to complete the sessions in a timely manner and enables them to learn in a way that suits them. It also saves time for senior managers who previously have been overburdened with training responsibilities.”

Concluding the conversation, a guest said that the sector needs to ensure it is taking care of its employees – making them feel valued will encourage retention and loyalty.

“Parental leave is not good enough and this is turning people away and massively limiting retention,” ​an attendee pointed out as one example. “Six months of leave makes staff feel valued and prevents burnout.”

While there are no clear-cut answers to the labour shortages, the debate at the Forum raised some worthwhile food for thought and reflected a few interesting approaches and ideas.

Events like Business Leaders’ Forum are the ideal place to have an honest and open discussion in the hope of finding solution – if you are a food/drink manufacturer and are keen to register and join in next time, you can do so here.

Thanks to our sponsors Amber, Aptean and TraceGains for their support and insight at this year’s event.

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