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Food and Drink

Louise Cairns

Louise Cairns is Chief Executive of The National Skills Academy for Food & Drink — the dedicated, not-for-profit champion of wide-ranging workplace skills across the UK's £112 billion-turnover food processing and manufacturing sector. Together, the industry comprises almost 12,000 enterprises employing over 450,000 people. A qualified management consultant with more than 25 years’ experience in the skills arena, Louise also acts as the voice of food & drink on the National Manufacturing Skills Task Force —  the strategic board that helps shape Government policy on emerging UK workforce skill gaps while maintaining and protecting the talent pipeline for manufacturing as a whole. 

One business success

  • There's been so many! One of the most recent has been the NSAFD's tailored help for young people and food and drink businesses to take maximum advantage of the Government's Kickstart scheme. Kickstart provided paid work-experience placements as a path into sustainable employment for young people caught in the classic job hunt challenge. They often don't have the 'right' work history, contacts, or qualifications to get to the top of the CV pile. Or simply find themselves drifting without a clear idea of how to get in and get on. The food industry has long flown under the radar of young job hunters. So this was a golden opportunity.  The NSAFD may be a small team but we pack a mighty punch and we pulled out all the stops. Collaborating with employers, the sector's trade organisation, and training providers, we devised a dedicated online training that ensured Kickstarters had easy access to the specialist food safety and food handling knowledge that's vital to sector employment. We also highlighted the incredible variety of careers the industry offers. More than 50 food firms took part offering over 400 placements. 169 young people started a placement with over 70 gaining a full-time job.  And our online training proved so popular, we enhanced it to become the landmark Food and Drink Careers Passport now backed as a fast-track recruitment route by leading firms. The Passport was officially launched at a House of Commons event attended by the Minister of State for Work and Pensions and is now used by a multitude of employability and job support organisations. We're really proud of that lasting legacy.

Two challenges for the sector

  • Like most UK industries, food and drink manufacturing is struggling with rising costs and a tight labour market while also looking to increase productivity through innovation in production processes. Recruitment problems in food manufacturing are nothing new. It's just that Covid, Brexit, the economic roller-coaster, high-energy costs, and changes to how and where people want to work, have compounded the negative effect. That could change with a recession. But we've just released a major piece of research on the industry's labour market that shows how the challenges, and to my mind the solutions, all inter-link. The pandemic focused minds on what's important in life and changed the way many people want to work. You can't make tins of beans with a laptop at home. But maybe you don't want to work long days or night shifts. Maybe you want more time with your family or you've got to collect the kids from school mid-afternoon. Maybe the money doesn't match the stress. As a sector, we've sometimes been slow to react and adapt. If we can be innovative in tailoring work to the wants of wider demographics, then surely we can be equally innovative in addressing issues like energy costs and the climate crisis by rethinking how we produce. Can we be more fuel and cost efficient through on-site sustainable power generation, greater use of renewable energy, or different energy sources like hydrogen?
  • The big workplace game changer is likely to be greater automation and 'smart' digital production control. As well as boosting productivity, it necessarily means working in different ways in jobs that require higher technical skills making for a more rewarding and attractive industry to work in.

Three forecasts for the sector

  • The profile of people employed in the sector will change. Not least because of some of the issues I've just alluded to. We're moving away from traditional production operator roles and the kind of work that can at times be mundane or demands only a low level of skill. Instead, there'll be the opportunity to transition to highly-trained technician roles that manage production machinery. That demands a high level of upskilling and even more focus on apprenticeships and apprenticeship standards for technicians.
  • Secondly, sustainability is and will continue to be, huge. And that's especially important in attracting new young talent. Research we did with graduates in Wales shows the upcoming generation really cares about your Mission, Values, and Goals and how they relate to sustainability.
  • Finally, if nothing else, the ups and downs of the past few years have shown us it's impossible to forecast the future with 100% accuracy. So adapt fast or struggle. The old cliché that change is a constant has never been truer.

November 2022