In this feature, Dan Plimmer explores how businesses can overcome the current and future skills shortage in the FMCG sector

The skills shortage in the food and drink industry is well documented with research from the Food and Drink Federation suggesting that the industry will need approximately 140,000 new recruits by 2024 to meet current and future demands1. The pressure on manufacturers to keep costs down whilst maintaining margins means that businesses need to innovate and adopt new technologies to stay competitive, but the growing shortage in engineering skills is threatening this progress.

Companies are implementing new, progressive methods of production, in line with the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), with technological advancements such as automation to support growth, reduce operating cost and increase efficiency. These methods often require skills previously unknown in the food and drink industry, forcing businesses to compete outside their sector for the right people which can further exacerbate the skills shortage. Although traditional engineering still has a big part to play in the food and drink industry, it is increasingly being usurped by the need to support technology with computer/digital programming, mechatronics, digital programming and big data analysis. While engineers are in short supply, there are positive steps that a business can take to secure the best talent in the competitive market to futureproof itself.

Benefit from contractor and interim expertise
With the current shortage of skilled workers potentially one of the most constraining factors for the implementation of 4IR, companies have the opportunity to tap into a flexible, trained and experienced workforce to help bridge the skills gap. Contractors and interim managers can help businesses adapt their operations, with their sought-after expertise – helping to bring clarity to decision-making and steer the strategic direction of a business. Their experience can make a difference within a relatively short space of time, at the same time as transferring knowledge and capabilities to the existing workforce.

Portfolio careers are becoming increasingly attractive to candidates whilst delivering benefits to employers. We have seen a growing number of interim specification technologists, production managers, operation managers, supply chain managers and general managers within the food and drink sector.

Utilising existing talent
Ever-evolving technology has resulted in new job roles, but with a lack of engineers to fill them, it is easy to overlook the skill-sets within the existing workforce and the potential to maximise existing talent.

Carrying out an organisational skills audit can highlight home-grown specialists and emphasise how training on the latest innovations could futureproof a business. Increased automation and adoption of Industry 4.0 concepts will lead the way to a new landscape of skills and jobs. With the right planning and a pro-development culture, employees could seize the opportunity to move into fulfilling new, previously non-existent jobs, while allowing the business to move forward.

Acting fast
Businesses need to act quickly if they are to take advantage of available talent. The skills shortage has made the candidate market extremely competitive and when quality candidates present themselves, businesses need to take into consideration that they need to move quickly to stay ahead of the competition.

If a company has not contacted the candidate within a few days, then it becomes more likely that the candidate will be presented and engage with other interesting opportunities or offers. The impact of showing real enthusiasm for the candidate by acting quickly should not be underestimated.

Transferring skills
Specific sector experience is usually preferred by employers particularly when looking for an engineer. However, the new skills required to support 4IR and technology implementation such as advanced mechatronics, digital programming and ‘big data’ analysis are highly transferable across sectors.

Also, recruiting people from a diverse range of backgrounds, including SME, blue chip and corporate, brings a fresh set of skills, mind-sets, approaches and ideas. Hiring just one person with an alternative way of tackling an issue can potentially have a profound impact on an organisation’s strategy, systems, processes or culture, transforming a business for the better.

It is also important to consider that there is an ageing workforce in the UK, and as senior staff move into the final phase of their working life, it is critical that pathways for knowledge transfer to juniors, apprentices and new employees are clearly established with appropriate timescales allowed. The transfer of skills from the more experienced staff members isn’t just best practice, it makes sound business sense.

Seeking expert advice
Working with a specialist recruiter can add real value to the hiring process, helping you to find, attract and retain the best candidates in a highly competitive market. Technical consultants understand that a one-size fits all approach does not work when acquiring new talent and use their expertise to source the best candidate required for the needs of a specific role, streamlining the recruitment process and significantly saving time.

A technical consultant will be able to offer clear and realistic market insight and competitor intelligence, whilst having access to the best networks and job boards to find available talent. They will have also dealt with many organisations implementing 4IR, and thus, can provide advice to companies looking to adopt technology such as robotics and automation, artificial intelligence and remote monitoring of production lines.

Despite the skills shortage of engineers, there are a number of solutions available to companies. It is an exciting time to be working within fast-evolving environments and there are plenty of opportunities available to forward-thinking businesses that embrace innovation in order to not only survive, but thrive. D

Dan PlimmerDan Plimmer is lead consultant for FMCG at Jonathan Lee Recruitment, which has been supplying the engineering and manufacturing sectors with talented people for 40 years. Many of its consultants come from engineering backgrounds, including the automotive, aerospace, defence, manufacturing and electronics sectors, and it prides itself on an in-depth understanding of the skills, experience and personal attributes required for specialist roles.