Five months to go – what measures are in place to enable UK agrifood businesses to overcome post Brexit skills shortages?

The Brexit process is placing extra pressure throughout the agrifood supply chain, which is already grappling with a skills gap, concerns about access to continual movement for workers between the UK and the EU, and a shortage of skilled and unskilled labour.

In addition, the UK’s world-class food and drink research and development relies heavily on highly-skilled researchers from the EU as well as EU research facilities and funding , placing innovations in food and drink manufacturing and exports at risk.

The latest House of Commons Report into the impact of Brexit on the food and drink industry notes that the food manufacturing, drink and hospitality sectors are unusual in the UK for such a heavy reliance on EU labour at both unskilled and highly-skilled levels for meeting their existing skills gaps.

The numbers involved include 27,000 permanent staff from the EU working in British agriculture in 2016, with a further 116,000 EU nationals working in the UK’s food manufacturing sector.

These figures do not include an estimated 75,000 temporary seasonal workers, 98 per cent of whom come from the EU. These temporary workers currently rely on freedom of movement to work legally in the UK.

Figures published by The Food and Drink Federation suggest that that almost one-third of the 117,000 workers in the Food and Drink manufacturing sector come from the EU and that 140,000 new recruits will be needed in the Food and Drink industry by 2024, as 30,000 food and drink workers a year retire or leave the UK.

High-level skills gap

We have talked to Justine Fosh, CEO of The National Skills Academy for Food and Drink about the widening skills gap in the agri-food sector, which she believes is likely to increase during the transition period.

She said: “Issues with the availability of labour are forcing employers to consider new approaches The shortages are not just in unskilled labourers as is often implied, we also need many more highly-skilled people to work in the sector and so strategies to address these shortages reflect this breadth.

“In response, employers are now looking to increase levels of automation. Evidence suggests that the sector hasn’t invested as much in automation as it could do but that this is accelerating as it becomes clear that there may be a serious shortage of labour in food manufacturing and production.

“However, automation comes with its own set of challenges, particularly a requirement for skilled engineers and operators. If employers are going to rely on automation they will have to invest in a pool of engineering talent to develop and maintain the machines that carry out the work.

“This technical, engineering-based skill set emphasises the need to encourage more students to develop knowledge and skills in the STEM subjects in UK schools, and to continue these studies through to degree level and beyond via university study and apprenticeships.”

Lack of security a barrier to investment

One of the barriers to investment in automation to improve productivity has been the lack of long-term contracts with retailers.

“It is difficult for a manufacturer to demonstrate a long term return on investment when compared to having a flexible labour pool,” said Justine.

“Some retailers are now looking to address the problem by offering more security to suppliers through longer-term contracts.”

Tesco, Aldi, LIDL and the Co-op have all signed up to the NFU’s Fruit and Veg Pledge, which aims to create long-term partnerships with growers, offering greater price and production certainty, while reducing waste through making better use of the whole crop.

Becoming an employer of choice through investing in staff

As the labour pool becomes smaller, and the skills in the industry become more advanced employers are looking at ways to increase their attractiveness to UK nationals.

“Employers are starting to invest a lot more in recruiting and retaining skilled staff. They want to become an employer of choice,” said Justine.

“The sector competes with many others for young talent and so getting the message about careers out to young people is really important and there has been a substantial investment by employers in engaging more with local schools.

“They are taking advantage of initiatives such as our Tasty Careers industry recruitment hub and sending their young high fliers to take part in outreach programmes that show the range of career opportunities that are available for young people.”

Employers are also accessing education and training through the AgriFood Training Partnership as part of an investment in continuing professional development (CPD). CPD has the dual benefit of increasing productivity by upskilling staff and improving retention by gaining employees’ commitment and loyalty through personal development.

Clear routes through skills training and development

In the past there was a lack of visibility and information about careers in the agrifood sector and associated supply chain, but this is changing.

“Increasing visibility of the opportunities available in the sector is one way of attracting more skilled people to work within it. We have worked to develop a very clearly signposted infrastructure to support apprenticeship standards. Young people can see how an apprenticeship can enable them to progress through to degree level, and employers now find the apprenticeship system far easier to understand.

“There are now very clear routes through training and employment for young people to develop rewarding careers within the industry,” said Justine.

As the industry’s leading high-level training provider, the AFTP is helping the industry’s best talent to increase productivity through technological and scientific advances.

AFTP Director, Professor Carol Wagstaff says: “The AFTP’s qualification portfolio has been designed to offer maximum flexibility to employers and individual industry professionals looking to deepen their knowledge and undertake new research in their business.

“We offer options such as distance and blended learning, and the capacity to ‘build’ degrees over time.

“As well as short courses focusing on specific industry topics, the AFTP also offers PGCert, PGDip, MSc, MRes and PhD qualifications, which participants can study on a part-time basis while remaining in full-time employment.”

Implications for universities and research and development institutes

Carol went on to say: “The UK has a number of world-class food and drink research and development institutes, many based within universities. The vital innovations developed by these researchers could be under threat post-Brexit, especially if programmes are joint projects relying on EU researchers, facilities and funding.

The UK Government has committed to match all EU funding for food and drink R&D awarded before Brexit, but there is a lack of clarity about what funding will be available post-Brexit.”

“We would question whether private sector funding will be able to plug the gap.”

Justine says, “As a skills academy, we see the challenge as continuing to attract high-quality teaching staff to come and work in the UK.

“Many full-time food science courses rely on overseas students and any restrictions on EU students could affect their viability. The UK needs to be in a position to continue to attract talented people for the good of the industry.”

“There is no silver bullet to address the challenge but there are practical actions. Investment in new technology is challenging and academia via the AFTP has a role to play in supporting businesses to identify and implement new food processing technologies and the provision of training.

Short courses aimed at upskilling our technical teams especially in engineering will be vital if automation is to be commissioned and effectively implemented.

Apprenticeships are relevant for all whether at an entry level or at Master's level; a concerted effort to engage with young people to enable them to join our industry and have a fulfilling career is also important.

But above all working together for the good of the industry is critical. Initiatives such as the creation of the Food and Drink Sector Council are already demonstrating the power of working collaboratively as a food chain with government.”

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