The food and drink industry is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK. Larger than automotive and aerospace combined, and contributing £31.1bn to the UK economy, the sector should, in theory, have the pick of the crop when it comes to people. Yet surprisingly, beyond established channels, the food and drink supply chain, including agriculture, is not top of mind for most people considering their next career move. Darren Houghton, Director and Head of Research at Eden Search & Select, sets out his thoughts on what the food and drink industry should be doing to avert a major skills shortage in the future.

According to latest Food & Drink Federation (FDF) figures, the food and drink industry currently employs more than 450,000 people – 25% of who are from the European Union. By 2024, the FDF estimates the industry will need at least 140,000 extra employees. But where will these people come from? In 2018, more than half of companies participating in the BDO Food and Drink Survey  said they were having difficulty recruiting the skilled people their business needed. With the UK’s unemployment rate now the lowest  it’s been since the end of 1975 – and Brexit continuing to cause uncertainty, at home and abroad – the food and drink industry, and agriculture, must start actively encouraging people into the sector, from all kinds of professions.

The need to address our industry’s emerging talent gap is even more pressing when you consider that millennials, many of who now sit at board-level, are less interested in long-term tenures than their predecessors. Rather than staying in a role for five to ten years, the latest wave of senior executives seem to prefer to move roles every two to three years. From an executive search perspective, this can have a major impact on strategic planning. Companies that used to need to address board succession once a decade, now have to think about who their next three directors might be, over the same time frame.

At Eden Search we are working with lots of clients to address this challenge, identifying solutions to help them nurture existing talent, and entice new people into their business from other areas of industry. It’s encouraging to see a growing number of companies tackling this issue and preparing for the future – but there is a need for a bigger, more concerted effort that spans the whole industry. It’s shocking to think that graduate engineers are far more likely to turn to conventional industrial fields in the hunt for their first role – rather than exploring what’s on offer within food production and farming. The same is true of legal, financial and technology specialists. This is a travesty given the opportunities on offer.

So what’s the answer? Well, as an industry, we obviously have to carry on promoting ourselves to agricultural colleges and universities offering specialist farming and food science degrees. But business leaders, universities, schools and politicians should also work together, at a grass roots level, to raise awareness of the career pathways that exist in food, drink and farming for people with all kinds of skills – from engineering and operations to accountancy and sales and marketing. Some progress is being made in this area. In early March, the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD) announced it had been working with large multinationals including Nestle, Premier Foods and Smurfit Kappa. Together these organisations have developed the standard for a new degree level packaging industry qualification that will help address the current skills shortage in the UK packaging sector. Subsequently it was announced that the first provider of the apprenticeship will be Sheffield Hallam University, home to the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering. In September, the Centre will also welcome the first students to its Food and Drink Engineer Degree. This work is reassuring, but more effort is required.

With a shortage of employees, securing the right people is going to become more competitive and more expensive. So, let’s start nurturing talent from the ground up.– developing campaigns that position our industry as dynamic and exciting, and which show us actively seeking out the the next generation of food and drink executives. As a young graduate looking for work in Southport in 2010, I was unaware that companies such as Flavourfresh and PepsiCo were on my doorstep, looking for people with my skills set. If I’d realised that, my route into executive search for the sector might have been a lot more direct. Instead, I headed off to London to cut my teeth in investment banking and private equity.

At Eden, we haven’t got all the answers but we are happy to talk to companies that have identified that this is an industry-wide issue and are prepared to get the conversation started. We believe that this work needs to start now, not in a few years’ time. After all, your next super star engineer, operations director or CEO might be sitting at college right now, wondering which industry to work in, but completely unaware of the opportunities that our sector could offer them? Can you really afford to lose them to another industry?

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