Many view the food industry as boring and repetitive say experts

Many view the food industry as boring and repetitive say experts

There is a lot to be said about a career in the food industry. But, as the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum heard yesterday (29 April), the sector is failing to attract a new generation of talent. This represents a significant long-term threat and food manufacturers must act to attract the innovators and decision makers of tomorrow, Hannah Abdulla suggests.

With the food industry being the UK's largest manufacturing sector, it was no surprise that there were murmurs of disbelief among the audience at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum when they were told that the next generation of workers were less inclined to go for a career in the industry because they perceived it as "boring, repetitive and for people with no qualifications".

Considering the size of the industry, which deputy director for food policy, competitiveness and growth at DEFRA, Tim Render, says contributes to a GDP of GBP25bn, it does make you wonder why out of 119 universities in the UK, only one specialises in food engineering on a full-time basis - Sheffield Hallam. And it's worrying, based on the Food and Drink Federation's estimates of the need for 170,000 people in the industry in the next five years.

According to Dr Martin Howarth, director, National Centre of Food Engineering, Sheffield Hallam University, there is a lack of demand from students generally for food related subjects.

"Not only have we a challenge to bring the right, well qualified people into the sector but we are also competing against other engineering sectors and I have to say generally if people are thinking about engineering, they are thinking about other sectors not food and drink manufacture," he said.

His argument is supported by further research from the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink who said it wasn't just youngsters, but also unemployed people looking to get back into work, that wouldn't have the food industry as their first choice

"The vibrant dynamic industry that we've been talking about all morning is viewed by many people as an industry they wouldn't specifically choose to enter," explained CEO Justine Fosh.

So just why is the view of the industry so negative and seemingly uninviting for tomorrow's generation of workers?

Fosh said while the industry was "phenomenally good", with an offer of good job security, better salaries on average than other sectors including retail, and recession resilience, it needed to "wake up" as there was a "history of a lack of talent development".

"I do find it quite ironic that in an industry with some of the best brands and best marketeers we can't market ourselves as an industry to young people," she added.

Of the 900 people interviewed by the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink, only 15% would consider a job in the food and drink sector. And even then, it was varied according to sector, with alcohol and confectionery attracting the highest numbers.

Part of the problem is the industry's delay in targeting people to enter the sector. Howarth says it is at the tender age of 12-14 that students should be made aware of "the exciting opportunities" within the industry. And their parents should be made aware of the exciting careers available for their children.

A need for higher spend in training staff and a clear articulation of what the industry needed in terms of skills so that academic programmes can be tailored to deliver effective courses was also highlighted. 

But there was a clear call for a more joined up approach within the industry in backing talent-hunting initiatives.

Some good work is coming from a growing awareness of the problem among UK companies. The National Skills Academy for Food and Drink is currently working on the Tasty Careers initiative, supported by Premier Foods and Arla to name a couple.

The initiative sees a young recruit go to the school and discuss with students his/her take on working in the industry, highlighting the exciting points and relaying the message it is a rewarding and enjoyable career, "not things we thought were important such as it's a great job in terms of money or job security," said Fosh.

However, with the prospect of an under supply of talent to drive the food industry forward for future generations, it is clear that more must be done.