Tasty options

The food and drink industry has an insatiable appetite for skilled labour, so there are plenty of jobs available in one of the biggest sectors of the economy. Julia Pierce reports.

The food and drink sector is one of the biggest in the UK economy and one of the few industries whose products are indispensable to everyday life.

The universal demand to eat and drink does not, however, protect food and drink companies from commercial realities. On the contrary, the sector is under constant pressure to become more efficient, adopt new technologies and launch a stream of innovative products that will literally whet the appetites of consumers.

These imperatives mean there are plenty of interesting and rewarding roles available for engineering professionals with the right mix of skills in a sector that employs almost 470,000 people. However, finding the right people to fill these jobs is not always easy as even the leading firms in the sector have found.

One company now looking for quality staff is Coors. The drinks firm recently won a large brewing contract from Scottish and Newcastle (S&N) in the UK, and is also setting up a joint venture with SAB Miller in the US. ‘We are looking for people to fill two sizeable engineering posts,’ said Kevin Bailey, director of production operations at Coors. ‘The first is an engineering manager for our Alton brewery in Hampshire and the second is for a head of engineering for our UK operations. The latter post has been vacant since October last year, after the previous holder was made global head of engineering. However, we have yet to find the right person to fill this role.’

According to Bailey, the ideal candidate for the second role will hold chartered status in electrical or mechanical engineering and will have the knowledge to deal with such demands of the job as dealing with legislative compliance. They will also be in charge of asset care, plant reliability and improving lean practices. However, alongside technical ability they must also display strong leadership and communication skills, and motivational and performance management abilities.

Although based in the UK, they will also have a global role to play as part of an international company, sitting on global councils within the company, which examine performance and plants across the Coors network.

‘The successful person must be able to deliver results through other people,’ said Bailey. ‘At the moment, we have either found that applicants have had good technical and engineering qualifications but lacked leadership experience, or that they have had good leadership skills but were not so good on the engineering side.’

The competitive nature of the food and drink industry means that in order to retain staff and train existing workers for more challenging roles or those involving new technology, companies such as Coors are taking time to improve employees’ skills.

‘We are introducing mechanical skills to non-craftsmen and are also carrying out evidence-based assessment,’ said Bailey. ‘Here, we use an independent assessor to look at the skills of our existing engineers, allowing us to fill in knowledge gaps after consultation. We are trying to raise the performance of all people across our organisation.’

Soft drinks giant Britvic recently ran a recruitment campaign for its Chelmsford site, searching for engineers to fill specialist roles requiring electrical skills with PLC knowledge. ‘There is a lack of such individuals, and this is something that has driven salaries up,’ said James Tucker, recruitment business partner.

Britvic is now seeking candidates for a senior role in the west of England. As with Coors, it has been hard to find someone with the right mix of skills and attributes for this high-level position.

‘We are looking for a regional engineering manager for the west,’ said Tucker. ‘The position has been advertised for quite some time. We are looking for an individual with technical ability but who also has the skills to improve and motivate people. Getting that balance right has been a big challenge.’ There is also a team leader position available in the north.

Recognising that there is a general shortage of people with skills that meet the industry’s needs, Britvic is keen to offer existing staff training. ‘We are trying to increase our internal capabilities by offering, for example, PLC training courses,’ said Tucker.

‘We recruit by looking at people’s potential, rather than just looking at what they currently do or have done in the past.’

 For those who are seeking a position within the industry but who are not yet ready to apply for top-level posts, S&N is looking to recruit project engineers, reliability engineers and automation engineers. The vacancies have arisen due to a restructuring of the firm’s manufacturing base, and the high rate of growth in demand for cider.

‘We are investing heavily in our sites in Hereford, Manchester and Tadcaster over the next two years,’ said Richard Jeffers, head of UK engineering. ‘In addition, we are continuing to drive the focus we have on reliability-centred maintenance that has been in place for the last 12 to 18 months. Within the beer and cider market, S&N is in the unique position of increasing market share in a declining market, with cider growing in volume.’

There is a recognised shortage of engineering skills across the manufacturing industry, and S&N is no different. However, the company is making sure that the standard of those recruited is not compromised. ‘Feedback from recent recruits is that S&N sets its standards high — the need for excellent interpersonal and leadership skills is just as important to us as a strong technical foundation, which means that it can take us longer than average to ensure we recruit the best people for our business,’ said Rachel Wallace, resourcing manager.

Despite the difficulty in finding recruits, those within the food and drink sector are confident it will remain an attractive workplace for those with the right skills.

According to Jeffers, the drinks industry is still a good place to work, not least because operators within it such as S&N offer tempting benefits packages.

‘There is no doubt that brewing is an excellent business to be in. Unlike most manufacturing it is easy to engage with the products,’ he said. ‘In addition, we are committed to supporting engineers at all levels to gain professional accreditation to chartered, incorporated or engineering technician level, depending on their own background. We also offer a competitive benefits package featuring healthcare, a pension, shares, and generous holidays.’

Such generous salary and benefits packages are not just the preserve of a single company. ‘We offer careers, not just a job,’ said Chris Spray, Britvic’s general manager. ‘Industry-leading programmes are offered to all people to help with their development. People coming to us also like the fact that they are dealing with brands that people recognise.’

Like Coors, Britvic is growing. ‘We have ambitious acquisition and merger plans, and we have some innovative products coming on line,’ said Spray. ‘J2O, for instance, has grown from nothing to be the number one adult soft drink. Meanwhile, we are launching some new juice products under the Robinsons brand and need very competent people to help run this.’

Despite the pressures of competition mean the sector is doing all it can to attract and retain the best recruits. For employees, this means that in terms of support and further training, those engineers entering the industry can look forward to a good-quality long-term career.