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Setting out a food industry vision for skills

03 June 2018

Suzanne Gill reports from the NSAFD Food & Drink Engineering Summit, which took place at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry in April, and which set out a vision for how the food and beverage industry could work together to tackle the engineering skills challenges. 

Speakers at the event discussed practical ways that individual food companies are seeking to address their own skills issues and this was set against the context of technological advancement and a new landscape for training and education in England, including the introduction of the apprenticeship levy.

Justine Fosh, CEO at the National Skills Academy Food & Drink (NSAFD), used the event to launch the ‘Engineering the food industry future: A skills strategy for food engineering’ document. Explaining why this guidance document is needed she said: “The food industry faces a big challenge when it comes to attracting engineers and this relates to the image that food is hand-crafted in kitchens and does not adequately reflect the high level of engineering required in food preparation. This has led to a big disconnect between the finished product and the engineering skill required to achieve it.”

According to John Griffith, chair of the Food & Drink Engineering Industry Skills Partnership, and engineering director at Princes, the food industry has not approached the skills challenge strategically. “We have been caught napping, leaving a 20-year legacy of a lack of recruitment and investment in people and through oversight, or a lack of engagement, we have allowed others to set the agenda. This has resulted in a shortage of skilled people and training providers historically delivering engineering learning to a lowest common denominator.

“This new strategy document sets out how the food industry should start the journey to address the ambition of becoming a world class industry.”?

The pursuit of greater productivity means that many businesses are now seeking to automate processes in an effort to reduce their reliance on labour. This will drive a requirement for greater levels of technical capability, including an increase in technical and skilled operators ‘on the line’ and an increase in the number of engineers required to maintain the equipment.

Significant investment from Government is likely to be deployed to incentivise the uptake of new technology to capture some of the £55 billion indentified by the ‘Made Smarter’ review, as a result of the adoption of digital technologies. Of course, the adoption of new technologies will require engineers with higher skill levels, who are able to make the business case and lead the commissioning and implementation of new technologies.

The ‘Engineering the food industry’s future: a skills strategy’ document highlights the fact that the food industry is at a watershed moment and challenges it to get involved to ensure it can control its own destiny and not get left behind as other industry sectors reap the benefits of digitalisation.

Going forward, the food industry will need to find ways to attract a greater quantity of multi-skilled and multi-level engineers with a breadth and depth of skills – to maintain existing legacy estate and also to implement greater levels of automation.

The NSAFD strategy document sets out a vision of how the food sector might succeed – highlighting both the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. The document points to four key pillars, underpinned by the following principles:

1. The food industry needs to open up the talent pipeline and provide more opportunities for people to experience engineering by being better engaged. Every route into the food industry needs to be open, well designed and fit for purpose.
2. The food industry needs to influence the agenda – from what engineering skills young people learn at college through to the design of apprenticeship standards for the sector. If industry isn’t involved then it cannot complain!
3. The food industry needs to start acting like a world class industry. Working together to address industry needs will have greater impact and profile than working in isolation.
4. The food industry needs to own industry solutions. The skills systems is complex and unless industry shapes and takes responsibility for owning the solutions for the long term it won’t have the infrastructure needed.

The food industry is by no means alone in its endeavours and there are currently many reforms underway to education, skills and training. This presents numerous opportunities for food industry to accelerate its activity and to get involved and have real impact.

The NSAFD has urged industry to support the strategy by commiting to use the suite of Food and Drink Engineering Apprenticeship standards which have been developed by the industry for the industry.

It also recommends becoming a member of a collaborative industry group – either the Industry Skills Partnerships, which operate nationally, or locally through a steering group to support Industry Approved Providers to develop their facilities and delivery. Other things that food processors can do is to support local providers by offering to provide CPD and industry experience to lecturers and staff; ensure that engineers are trained as Tasty Careers Ambassadors and engage with local schools; engage with Sheffield Hallam’s Centre of Excellence to help ensure that the design and launch of the physical centre in 2019 reflects industry needs; and commit to offering a work placement for full-time learners currently studying the Masters Degree in Food and Drink Engineering or the new T levels.

Finally, if you have redundant kit or equipment, then offer it to the network of Industry Approved Providers who are always looking for industry equipment. In conclusion, Griffiths said: “This is not a strategy that can be delivered by a hard-core of committed companies alone. It requires all food and drink businesses, led by their engineers, to play their part. “We owe it to the food and drink engineers of the future, who will be responsible for our factories in times of significant change and technological advancement, to provide them with the best learning opportunities to develop the skillsets they need.

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