IFST Forum - Flexibility and innovation required for agrifood skills training provision

Flexibility and innovation required for agrifood skills training provision

A forum hosted by the Institute of Food Science and Technology at the 2018 Food Matters Live Show in London highlighted the ongoing need for flexibility and innovation when it comes to training and skills development provision in the agrifood sector.

The IFST Education & Careers Forum, ‘Strengthening the Food Sector Talent Pipeline’ was chaired by IFST Education and Careers Chair Professor Richard Frazier, from the University of Reading. The forum featured a lively discussion of topical issues including delivering standards for new qualifications, barriers to access educational programmes in rural areas, and concern over participation rates of SMEs in CPD and apprenticeships. 

The forum reflected wider concerns about ongoing skills shortages in the UK agrifood sector, discussed here in a recent article by the Director of the AgriFood Training Partnership, Professor Carol Wagstaff. 

New T Level in Food Sciences

Janette Graham, from 2 Sisters Food Group, detailed the consultation and standards development process in the lead-up to the 2020 launch of the new T Level qualification designed by the Department for Education to simplify post-16 technical education choices for students.

Janette gave delegates an introduction to the core and occupational standards of the forthcoming Food Sciences T Level, which will have its first cohort in 2021. 

It is hoped that the Food Sciences T Level will provide a more industry-focused alternative to the discontinued AS and A Levels in Home Economics and Design and Technology: Food.

Developing the skills that industry wants from graduates in food science

Emma Weston, Associate Professor in Food Sciences, at the University of Nottingham, presented an update to the 2017 White Paper Competencies for Food Gradate Careers . It provides a framework for key competencies for food graduate careers based on research into what industry needs from graduates in food science. 

An online interactive tool enabling visitors to match the competencies to potential roles is now available on the University of Nottingham website.

Key competencies for the food industry include the relevant technical skills, for example for laboratory work or research, as well as data and number skills, communication skills and a preparedness to adapt to change. 

During her presentation, Emma highlighted the importance of industry placements to develop readiness for work and called for more efforts to be made to encourage students to choose a career in food sciences, starting at Year 10.

She reported that the research indicated that there are 14 typical role types for technical graduates entering the food industry, which should be made more visible to secondary students and undergraduates.

Her findings indicated that difficulties attracting the right and best applicants for vacancies is contributing to the sector’s skills shortage. The Food Sciences team is working on clarifying job specifications to help employers and also produces resources to make the sector more attractive and accessible to students.

Career paths in food manufacturing

Louise Codling, from the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink, described a growing range of food manufacturing career paths and the number of entry points available for individuals.

They range from entry level crafts programmes through to advanced operator roles and postgraduate technical, engineering and research level roles, which could be achieved through apprenticeships. 

Skilled individuals may not be aware of how transferrable their skills are. They could be encouraged to move into food manufacturing from sectors including marketing, IT and engineering.

Louise described the food and drink industry’s work on developing standards which attempt to future-proof apprenticeships and move them away from narrowly defined occupational training programmes. Current barriers to growth in apprenticeship numbers include a lack of good providers and the rationalisation of sixth-form colleges under regional reviews.

Uptake numbers for Food Technologist Level 3 and Technical Professional Level 6 are small but growing. 

The Academy’s work indicates that universities have adapted very quickly to the delivery of the taught part of professional apprenticeships and these are attracting real talent into the industry. There is a need for support to develop more local training providers particularly in the South West and North West.

Short and long-term topics for discussion with Government

Policy Manager Caroline Keohane described the role of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) as the anchor group for two of the eight Food and Drink Sector Council (FDSC) workstream groups: Workforce, and Food and Drink Industry Sector Deal. 

The objectives of the FDF-led workstream groups are to develop the future workforce for the value chain and to increase productivity focusing on export growth and engineering innovation. Outside perceptions that the sector only offers low-skilled, low-technology and low-pay jobs still need to be overcome.

While Brexit remains a challenge to labour at all skills levels in the sector, an as-yet untapped opportunity has emerged. The FDF estimates the value to food and drink manufacturers of adopting ‘known’ digital technology to grow sector technology and create higher numbers of better skilled jobs at £55.8bn.

Draft short-to-medium requests from Government include: a promotional campaign to attract older apprentices and to encourage employers to use apprenticeships to upskill existing staff; flexibilities to enable food chain companies to spend apprenticeship levy to implement uniformed apprenticeships across UK sites including devolved nations; and a future UK immigration policy that works for the food chain.

Draft longer-term requests include: creating food as a recognised career route within the occupational route maps instead of being split across hospitality, manufacturing and science; and that T Levels should build on the significant interest young people have in food and present a broad curriculum option before specialising into a specific food occupation.

New and more flexible providers

Professor Wagstaff said: “There is a clear need for new and more flexible ways of delivering training to the food sector. While SMEs make up 90 per cent of the agrifood sector, they are not engaging with apprenticeships in the numbers hoped for. This is because of factors including lack of accessible training providers, cost and the inability to have workers off-site for long blocks of time. 

“The Agrifood Training Partnership aims to make it easier for employers at all levels to engage with education and training by providing industry-leading one-day workshops, short courses, distance learning and even part-time postgraduate degrees up to PhD level.

“Our students value the flexibility our courses offer them, and employers appreciate the access we provide to the latest research.”

Learn more

To find out more about the range of education programmes provided by the Agrifood Training Partnership, visit the courses page for information about distance and online flexible learning options.

  1. Framework for Productivity, Carole Wagstaff, Fiona Kendrick, Colin Dennis, Phil Hollington, Tim Hess, John Brameld, Mitch Cook, Michael Wilkinson, Jerry Roberts, Craig Farrell and Barbara Mason. www.aftp.co.uk. 2018, https://www.fstjournal.org/features/32-4/skills-shortages.

  2. Competencies for Food Graduate Careers, Emma Weston, White Paper, August 2017, https://www.ifst.org/sites/default/files/Industry%20White%20Paper%20August%202017.pdf.

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