As the food and drink manufacturing sector has experienced an unprecedented rise in demand during 2020, the skills gaps that exist have become all the more important to fill. Will Daynes looks at some of the ways this challenge is being addressed

As the old saying goes, you would probably have to have been living under a rock for the last nine months not to be aware of the immense change and upheaval that the world has experienced in 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic has been described as a ‘once in a century’ event, and its impact has created challenges that before now would have been unprecedented for many. The UK’s food and drink manufacturing industry has been uniquely affected by the pandemic, having been faced with the need to continue to help feed a nation amidst a backdrop of lockdown’s and various restrictions.

“The food and drink manufacturing sector has found itself placed in a remarkable situation during 2020, which has resulted in productivity increasing to levels that have rarely been seen before in order to meet the demand of consumers. While other areas of the industry such as restaurants and other hospitality venues have been closed, or have seen a reduction in demand, since March, manufacturers have expanded significantly in terms of output to meet the needs of retailers and end users,” states Louise Cairns, CEO of The National Skills Academy for Food & Drink.

The National Skills Academy for Food & Drink exists to provide businesses across the UK’s food and drink manufacturing and processing industry with access to leading edge workforce training, vocational study and skills upgrades, which are in turn designed to boost productivity, innovation and growth. With a mission of making the food and drink industry in the UK the best in the world, it also acts as the industry’s voice to Government on the strategic skills issues affecting the industry.

“We support employers in navigating their way around the skills system, and work to devise programs and solutions that facilitate the development of those skills that they need to meet their day-to-day requirements, whether it be through dedicated providers, universities, apprenticeships or other means,” Louise says. “Demand for labour has been rising significantly in the last six months in particular, with companies suffering from a shortage of people needed to get goods out of their facilities and on their way to stores quickly enough. This has resulted in a need for both semi-skilled labour – typically made up of packaging or warehousing personnel – as well as high-skilled technicians and engineers.”

In the case of the latter category, Louise explains how a move in recent years into more highly automated environments has led to the role of the operator in the food and drink manufacturing industry becoming much more akin to that of a technician. Said individual is increasingly having less hands-on contact with the products themselves, and taking more responsibility in ensuring that different equipment and tools are working properly. “This scenario means that these workers ideally need to be multi-skilled individuals with a degree of understanding or experience of engineering, as well as food science. We are certainly moving further away from a more manual environment into a more high-tech, automated one, and therefore there will be an ever-greater need in the future for more technically-minded people.”

Arguably one of the biggest issues that the industry faces in this regard is the large skills gaps that exist, whether it be as a result of a shortage of people coming through the educational pipeline who want to fulfil such roles, or from an inability to attract engineers and technicians from other walks of life into the food and drink sector. This is where the efforts of The National Skills Academy for Food & Drink, and others, become vital.

“A lot of our recent work has been focused on ensuring that the new apprenticeship standards that have been developed contain the knowledge that is needed to deliver the skills that fit those more technical occupations that we have spoken of going forward,” Louise states. “In our role as a facilitator, we have worked to bring the industry together to develop the food and drink engineering standard, as well as all of the food operation standards, in order to try and help plug the gaps that presently exist. By listening to employers and gaining an understanding of what they need from potential employees, we work to input that feedback into apprenticeships, so that we can create practical solutions to the challenges the industry currently faces.

“We are also a part of the Workforce and Skills Group, which is a working ground spun out of the Food Sector Council and is actively looking at a number of initiatives as part of plans to galvanize the sector into engaging with skills providers more than it does at present. There is work ongoing to determine how best to mobilize small businesses to engage more with the skills system, and we are also working with various existing programs such as the UK Government’s Kickstart Scheme, which provides funding to create new job placements for 16-to-24 year olds.”

One other barrier that needs to be overcome, Louise adds, is that provision isn’t moving as quickly as the sector itself. “This means that a lot of the equipment being used to train prospective engineers isn’t always reflective of that which is used specifically within the food and drink manufacturing arena. Therefore, we have to work to improve the capabilities and resources that skills providers have access to in order to enable them to deliver the type of training that the sector relies upon. Only by moving at the same pace as the food and drink manufacturing industry can we be confident that we can fill the skills gaps that exist today with technically proficient people who are trained in using the right tools and equipment.”

For further information on what is available from The National Skills Academy for Food & Drink, please visit: www.nsafd.co.uk