As the final countdown to the day that the UK is currently scheduled to leave the EU approaches, there is a real concern within the agrifood sector that Brexit may make it more difficult to source skilled workers from outside the UK. Employers are already facing a skills shortage, particularly across food manufacturing.
Defra has issued guidance on food labelling for importers and exporters in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, and many in the agrifood sector are also seeking advice on the EU Settlement Scheme for EU workers and managing temporary labour requirements.
With just days to go before the March 29 Brexit deadline, there is still major uncertainty about the detail of the exit process, including whether or not an extension will be requested and whether a deal will be reached.
AFTP develops home-grown talent
If it is not possible for businesses to continue sourcing talent from overseas, an alternative strategy is to upskill existing staff. Professor Carol Wagstaff, AFTP Director, said: “It is more important now than ever before that UK employers find ways to develop high-level skills internally and attract the best home-grown talent.
“Supported by our many stakeholders, the AFTP consortium has a great deal to offer in terms of carefully designed part-time education programmes that are accessible to busy food professionals with limited time to study.
“Whether it’s a one-day workshop or a postgraduate degree, all of our programmes help provide critical high-level professional skills that the agrifood industry needs and may become even harder to source in the turbulent post-Brexit period ahead.
“The UK has a proud tradition of maintaining very high standards in food production. The AFTP is here to help maintain that tradition through providing access to the latest cutting-edge academic research that can be translated into applied industry expertise.
“Both employers and employees benefit from AFTP programmes. Regardless of the outcome of the Brexit process, newly-acquired knowledge and skills can be applied immediately in the workplace to improve our international competitiveness.”
Many questions still to be answered
There are many questions regarding Brexit that are still to be answered in a period of rapid change and deep uncertainty.
Former immigration minister Robert Goodwill has been appointed Defra’s new farming minister after the resignation of George Eustice. The Telegraph reports that Defra has won cabinet committee clearance to follow all EU food safety and animal health regulations for nine months if there is a no-deal Brexit.
Michael Gove announced at the National Farmers’ Union annual conference that in that event, food tariffs would be applied to protect farmers. Tariff schedules will be published after the next Commons vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal if it becomes clear that the UK will be leaving the EU without a deal.
Agri-tech sector will continue to thrive
Will Wells, CEO of Hummingbird Technologies, said: “There is huge uncertainty about changes to legislation at a time when we need clarity. The situation is not good for long-term planning.”
Hummingbird Technologies is an artificial intelligence business that uses imagery and data analytics from satellite, drone, plane and robot technology, along with proprietary algorithms, to provide high-resolution maps of crops for farmers. The company recruits some of the UK’s top science, engineering and technology graduates.
Will Wells said: “Uncertainty over funding for university research programmes that used to be provided by the EU may have a negative effect on the number of overseas students that come to the UK.
“We actively seek the brightest candidates and hire new graduates directly from top UK universities. It is possible that if funding does not continue at its present level, the talent pool will diminish in quality.”
However, the outlook is not all bleak. Will is optimistic that demand for high-tech services like Hummingbird’s will continue to grow.
He says: “The agri-food sector is under a lot of pressure at the moment. But conversely agri-tech is booming. Agri-tech is all about innovation and problem solving – and it’s very attractive to highly-skilled graduates who are concerned about the environment and want to do a job that is meaningful.
“Regardless of our relationship with the EU, UK-based agri-tech will continue to develop world-leading solutions.
Time to ‘work in collaboration’ on new technology
Barbara Bray, Food Safety and Nutrition Consultant at Alo Solutions, has worked in the food manufacturing sector for seventeen years and has seen at first hand the impact of the current skills gap, particularly when it comes to introducing new technology.
She said: “ There are three areas where stakeholders need to focus on to reduce the skills gap. Recruitment and retention, effective training to use digital tools and collaboration at industry and government level .
Individual business are working hard on recruitment and retention of staff but it would be better if there were underlying national policies to promote the UK food industry aligned to the industrial strategy.
“IFST and STEM activities are helpful to the industry but more is needed to help build scale and momentum.”
“Digital tools are being developed to help with international traceability and data collection. Mentoring and training for the current crop of managers is essential to help businesses move forward otherwise implementation of new technology will be slow and less successful.
Rather than focusing on EU initiatives that may no longer apply to the UK, Barbara is encouraging businesses to take a more international outlook.
She says: “There is currently a UN workstream looking at youth and women in the agrifood space. Any output from this will take time to trickle down to our national policy, but it will happen.
“Working in collaboration as an industry and understanding that technology is part of the solution is key, as is investing the time and the resources to train people properly.”
AFTP training courses for international agrifood
The AFTP has a range of short-term and degree-level programmes designed to help ease the transition away from the UK’s dependence on the trading relationship with the EU.
Courses such as International Food Law, which is currently our featured course with a 25% discount, Farm Business Management, Genetics and Genomics in Agriculture, and Consumer Sensory Science are all designed to deliver the latest research and development to delegates, and to encourage UK-based innovation.
Contact us to find out more about how our training courses can help your business
AgriFood Training Partnership
The University of Reading
PO Box 226, Whiteknights
Reading RG6 6AP