Recruitment and skills shortage are a persistent worry for food manufacturers in the UK. Feeding your employees' appetite for knowledge is the best recipe for staff retention in the food manufacturing industry, argues Tony Dumbreck.

Food and drink manufacturing is one of the UK's largest industries, with annual turnover of some GBP69.4bn (US$125.7bn). As one might expect with an industry of this size and scale, a large skilled workforce is required to sustain the high levels of production. Improve, the Sector Skills Council for Food and Drink Manufacturing and Processing, estimates that there are currently around 650,000 people across the UK employed in this industry, but it is becoming increasingly clear that food and drink manufacturing faces numerous problems across the sector including skills shortages and problems with the recruitment and retention of staff.

Studies conducted by Improve clearly show that the number of individuals employed within the food and drink manufacturing industry has been in decline. An estimated 26,000 jobs were lost between 1992 and 2002. Only the South West and the East Midlands regions had increased employment in the sector in the latter period.

Worryingly, employment in the industry is forecast to fall further, with expected decreases of 45,000 between 2004 and 2014. Half of this decrease is expected to be within blue collar occupations. Despite this, 118,000 new workers are forecast to be required to meet replacement demand by 2014 (source: Working Futures II, 2006).
 
So what can individual companies do to combat this growing problem? A strong recruitment process, offering attractive pay and conditions, may seem the obvious solution, but this only tackles the effects of the problem, not the cause.

To understand how to solve the root of the problem, we need to look at the wider context of overall employment trends in the UK - specifically, job tenure. Current trends show that the average length of time an employee will remain in a job will be between three and five years. Furthermore, a survey recently undertaken by Reed Consulting found that more than a third of UK employees leave their job within their first year of employment, and more than three quarters of employees leave within three years.

This trend is especially detrimental to the food and drink manufacturing industry, suffering as it does from escalating recruitment problems and an increasing inability to replace the lost employees as easily as other industries might. Add to this the fact that many jobs in the trade are based around on-the-job training and demand a thorough working knowledge of the machinery, processes and products, and it is obvious that the trend of only staying in a job for three to five years could be costing the industry thousands of pounds in loss of expertise, additional training, loss of business relationships and simple human error.  

The answer lies not in recruitment, but in retention.

Attempts to retain and motivate staff in the food manufacturing industry should begin as soon as a new employee steps through the door. Employers should ensure that a comprehensive induction and training programme is in place for all new employees - this is essential in an industry where the initial learning curve is often steep and littered with regulatory requirements. A good induction and training system will also ensure that new employees' initial experiences of the company are positive, and that they are totally comfortable with their role. This helps them to become a fully functional and, crucially, productive employee as quickly as possible.

Once new employees are settled in, a valuable tool to ensure that they enjoy a long and happy career with your company is to provide them with many opportunities for personal and career development. There are many training courses and qualifications available for the food and drink sector, which cover a wide range of operations as well as food hygiene and food safety. These qualifications are available at levels one to three and can be delivered and assessed in the workplace (S/NVQs) or used to give the technical knowledge and understanding needed to do a job (VRQs).

By offering employees these training opportunities and a chance to build upon their skills and abilities, you are empowering them to challenge themselves and progress up the career ladder. This in turn greatly reduces the likelihood of dissatisfaction with their job role, as they feel in control of their progression within the company.

Giving your staff a sense of control and providing them with the means to discover their potential is not only achievable through training opportunities. Something as simple as involving them in the training of other employees or asking their opinion on company decisions will help them to feel valued, which in turn will increase their confidence. It is also essential to create an environment where they are not afraid to speak up if they are unhappy.

With both skilled and unskilled personnel difficult to source, the retention and recruitment of staff can be the greatest barrier to a food manufacturing company meeting its business objectives. Although much is being done to reverse the skills shortage and general recruitment problems in the industry, it currently remains the responsibility of individual employers to implement the appropriate measures to encourage a long-term commitment from their staff.

Tony Dumbreck is managing director of Golden Crumb

About Improve

Improve was established in July 2004 and is widely recognised as the leading authority on skill development in the UK Food and Drink Industry in the UK. It was formed to support employers in the bakery, brewery, dairy, distillery, drinks manufacturing, food manufacturing and processing, fresh produce, meat and poultry, seafood and confectionery industries.