News - 08 May 2014

Urgent Need to Find Next Generation of Workers for Food Industry

An ageing workforce and a skills shortage are key concerns for Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire’s food and drink manufacturing industry. As an industry which employs 16,000 people across the two counties and accounts for 17% of the region’s GDP, these are concerns which cannot be ignored.

Which is why the D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership has established a consultation group of representatives from food and drink businesses to inform its skills action plan for the sector. Business of all sizes – from a one-man smoothie maker to Thorntons – are represented. And, crucially as far as the industry bosses are concerned, schools and universities are also involved. Because encouraging youngsters to pursue a career in this sector is one of its major challenges. Heading up the group is David Williams, managing director of Nottingham company Butt Foods.

Based at the city’s Lenton Industrial Estate, Butt Foods manufactures and supplies naan and flatbreads, rolls, fruit bread and canape bases for the food service. More than more than 60 million products are baked at its factory each year. The company employs 50 people – after taking on ten new employees during the first four months of this year – and is growing at a rate of 30% every six months. But this growth has only been achieved during the last three years after Mr Williams sought guidance on how to take the business forward.

Advances were subsequently made in procurement, developing staff skills and motivation and sales. Mr Williams will no doubt use this experience to inform his new role with the consultation group, but as the industry gears up to face what he describes as a skills shortage crisis, he and his counterparts are keen to use the help and support on offer from the LEP.

“We have spent the last ten years watching various central Government schemes fail to address any skills issues that affect small businesses,” Mr Williams said. “This has been because the focus has been on very low-level NVQ one and two qualifications.

“The LEP came to us and said ‘what do you want’. No one has asked that question before, they’ve just tried to deliver things that don’t add any value to businesses in general.

“One of the biggest problems we have in the manufacturing food industry is an ageing workforce. “But when schoolchildren talk about having a career in food their teacher tells them to become a chef. Food manufacturing is never seen as a viable career. “Around 170,000 people in this industry across the UK are due to retire by 2020, but we have no interest from younger people to come into this industry. “We have to address this. In the past it has not been addressed by any of the low-level qualification scheme. A different answer is needed.

“It’s brilliant that the LEP is willing to listen to us and help us to address this, because if it is not we will not be able to find workers for our industry. “We need people coming out of school who are ready to go straight into work, and that does not happen now. By working with schools we can do so much more, so it is useful to have them involved in the consultation. “Our biggest problem is trying to get the image of the industry right and getting schoolchildren interested in working in food manufacturing. “If we don’t solve that problem we are not going to have enough workers for our industry – and that would be catastrophic.

“We’ve got to get schoolchildren to understand that there are a lot of skilled jobs available in factories, including sales, technical and product development. “A lot of the boring factory jobs have been automated out. “It’s a very resilient sector. We grew 900 jobs between 2008 to 2010 in the D2N2 area. “As the financial services industry was falling apart and shedding jobs we continued to be a very robust sector – because people always need to eat.

“They might change what they eat and you might eat out a bit less, but they are still eating, so I can still sell products.” Speaking about potential solutions D2N2 can offer his industry, Mr Williams said: “The LEP has asked us to highlight our current issues and identify potential future issues, in order to inform their funding applications. “We hope that going forward we will be able to tackle local problems, like the ageing workforce, in a very different way – by the LEP using its experience to influence funding that we can apply for to solve these problems.”

Consultation group members have also identified other specific issues facing their industry, which they hope D2N2 can resolve. These include support to aid and encourage small businesses to grow by providing mentoring and guidance. Mr Williams said: “People need strategic help around marketing and sales and they don’t have the experience in-house to do it, so they need help.” The horse-meat scandal has also seen manufacturers facing stricter food safety controls and being audited more often. “The retailers and the food service companies want to know that their chain is secure,” Mr Williams said. “The issue is we need more resources to cope with that. “But if you look at the University of Nottingham, out of its 30 graduates in food science, 29 returned to China. “So there’s a massive increase in demand but a real shortage of skills in food science and food safety and that’s a real problem at the moment for the food industry. “The skills action plan has a plan which we hope will address this. That includes offering qualifications to people already working in businesses, but we need some effort and resources to facilitate that.”

This is an extract from our Visitor Economy Supplement, to view the full document, Click Here

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