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Career opportunities in the food and drink sector

There is a growing demand for highly skilled technical staff in the UK’s relatively buoyant food and drink industry

With an annual turnover of around £70bn the food and drink industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. Employing more than 500,000 people, enjoying continued growth since 2009 and recently breaking through the £10bn export barrier the sector has, to some extent, defied the downturn.

But, according to many in the industry, if it is to continue to grow and compete, the sector must embrace ever-increasing levels of sophistication. And the skills of engineers from a range of disciples will be key to helping it achieve this.

Food call: the industry is looking to recruit more young engineers

Food call: the industry is looking to recruit more young engineers

According to Angela Coleshill, human resources director at industry body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), while employment levels in the sector are shrinking slightly, there is a growing demand for highly skilled technical staff. ’What we’re finding is the employment numbers are shrinking but the skill levels are changing,’ she said. ’We’re shedding roles that are low skilled in favour of more highly skilled and developed roles. By 2017 there’s going to be a need for 137,000 new recruits of which 45,000 come into the higher skills level.’

Despite the benefits of working in a relatively buoyant sector, however, persuading engineers to consider a career in food and drink can be a challenge. Indeed, the perception issues that dog the wider manufacturing industry are perhaps at their most extreme in a sector which, Coleshill admits, has tended to struggle with the ’hairnets and wellies’ tag.

“By 2017 there’s going to be a need for 137,000 new recruits of which 45,000 come into the higher skills level”

’Manufacturing in this country has generally suffered from poor image and misconceptions,’ she said, ’but food manufacturing is probably coming from an even lower base than some heavy engineering, particularly because there isn’t enough understanding of the range and breadth of roles in the sector, and the sort of innovation and research and development [R&D] that happens.’

In an effort to address these issues, the FDF is persuading manufacturers to sign up to its ’Taste Success’ campaign, an industry initiative designed to raise awareness among young people of the high-tech, innovative, nature of the sector. ’We really do need to galvanise action within the sector and there’s a real recognition of that,’ said Coleshill.

Indeed, Coleshill’s concerns are repeated throughout the sector. Talking this year at a National Skills Academy (NSA) event convened to discuss the skills challenges facing the sector, Britvic manager Rob Coxon said: ’Customers want different products at different times, so it’s vitally important as a business that we have efficient, reliable and flexible lines so we can produce what we need when it is needed. For that, you need good engineers.’

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Also talking at the event, Jonathan Cooper, NSA’s skills consultant for engineering maintenance, argued that maintenance skills will be particularly important. ’Engineering maintenance is vital to achieving and maintaining efficient performance on the shop floor,’ he said, ’yet engineering skills are in short supply.’

Coleshill agreed that the increasing levels of automation, and the use of advanced robotics are calling for skills not traditionally associated with the sector. ’We’re finding that we just don’t have the skill level within the industry,’ she said, ’and if we do we’re struggling with people who are potentially going to be retiring.’

According to Coleshill there are a number of reasons engineers should consider joining the food and drink sector, not least the sector’s economic staying power. But beyond this is the commercially pressing need to innovate. ’For food and drink manufacturers to remain competitive we’ve got to constantly look at new ways of doing things and for anyone with any interest in R&D and innovation that ’s quite exciting,’ she said.


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