The UK food industry faces significant obstacles when it comes to recruitment and labour, which must be targeted to ensure a stable and efficient food supply chain.
Brexit, the global pandemic and climate change have all led, directly and indirectly, to a drastic labour shortage, and this has emphasised the lack of resilience in the domestic food supply chain, surging the UK’s dependency on imports. According to the Office of National Statistics, imports of food and live animals, in value terms, increased by 19.7% in 2022 compared to 2021.
To tackle the labour shortage issue, it has been suggested that a coordinated approach by the government, the food industry and educational institutions must be made, focusing on four critical themes: recruitment, retention, skills and automation.
When many think of working in the food industry, they think of unappealing environments, unusual working hours and repetitive, backbreaking tasks. This preconception must change to attract more people to the industry. But, how can this be done?
Targeted public awareness communications campaigns should be used to educate individuals on how versatile the industry is and the range of skills and roles on offer. Another way to improve negative preconceptions is to reassure people that conditions for workers are improving, closely regulated and allow for flexibility in working hours. A way to do this is through coordinated reports, which showcase a strategy to enforce this.
What’s more, migrants traditionally form a large portion of the food industry workforce. To provide businesses with the confidence that they will have a sufficient workforce during busy times, such as the harvest season, the visa process must be more efficient and resilient until the domestic workforce is sufficient to prevent crop shortages.
Very few people wish to stay in an outdated industry and stagnant workplace positions, so employers must offer continuous learning opportunities and the chance for staff to improve their skillset. This is backed up by research by Pew, which demonstrates that 87% of workers believe that throughout their work life, it will be essential to get training and develop new job skills.
The food industry must be proactive in providing opportunities for career advancement and skill development to retain its workers. Upskilling is an investment, not an expenditure, for businesses and government support and funding would bolster this effort.
Governmental bodies, educational institutions and the food industry must react to the distinct skills shortage in the foods industry, and a multi-pronged approach which targets new and future employees is necessary.
The next generation of entrants into the food industry must be helped to flourish through an educational curriculum which offers attractive courses and programmes. Establishing this curriculum will create a filter of individuals into the food industry with greater skills and capabilities.
Apprenticeships are a great way to improve the skills of those already looking to enter the industry, and they should be flexible and include a wide range of training opportunities. As well as this, the government should look to increase access for SMEs to the Apprenticeship Levy, ultimately providing these businesses with more ways to train ad upskill their workforce.
Automation will undoubtedly make the food industry more attractive in the face of labour shortages and government funding is critical to incentivise productivity-enhancing automation. Not only will this allow productivity to improve, with repetitive, unattractive tasks being eliminated, but environmental outcomes will also improve.
There must also be a huge push for the advancement of automation knowledge and innovation, and the government, educational businesses and the food industry will need to play a vital role in making ambitious and exploratory efforts.
Labour shortages lead to decreased profits for farmers and producers, with a particularly heavy burden falling on SMEs, and a lack of supply for consumers – neither of which are attractive prospects for the British economy.
Particularly as the supply of migrant workers decreases post-Brexit, tackling labour shortages in the food industry requires a multifaceted and integrated approach.
But, do you think this will happen? And what else do you think the government, educational institutions and the food industry should be doing to recruit and retain a strong, skilled labour force going forward?
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