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'Meating' the skills challenge

26 October 2010

Frederika Roberts explores some of the skills and retention issues affecting the sector at all levels from factory floor to boardroom and uncovers some exciting new initiatives

Fact: The Food Industry as a whole struggles to be seen as an “employer of choice”. Despite there being more students than ever wanting to enter the Further Education system , there is still an issue with falling numbers on Food Science and Technology courses (see our previous Food Processing article: “Skills shortages spell potential disaster”
The Meat industry could arguably be expected to feel the impact first and hardest due to its “less than glamorous image”.

Claudia Bird of EA Bird and Sons said it’s hard to find experienced butchers so they usually look for candidates with the right attitude and train them in-house. They tend to recruit people who can form good customer relationships and are willing to work anti-social hours.

Adrian Williams, former Factory Manager and current Sales Manager of Jaspers Beef, echoed Claudia’s comments: “You can’t recruit individuals with ready-made sales or life skills. There are no butchers out there and, whilst we’re trying to de-skill our roles as much as possible, a certain amount of skill will always be required. Recruiting someone requires considerable training investment.”

It isn’t just experienced butchers that are difficult to find, adds Claudia Bird; “available (and affordable!) food safety trainers in our area are hard to come by”, so the company have invested in Claudia to become a registered CIEH Trainer. This not only saves the company time and money, but has, in turn, become an income stream as they can now offer food safety training to other businesses in the area.

In-house training is also prominent at Jaspers Beef, “a very training-focused organisation offering, among other training opportunities, NVQs on site” (Adrian Williams).

According to Andrew Brodie, HR Director of Faccenda Group, they now require a more skilled workforce such as engineers, IT professionals, food science graduates. “It's vital we work with the education community to ensure these skills are coming through the school and HE system to fill apprentice and graduate programmes”.

One interim technical manager said: “Recruitment is becoming an ever-increasing challenge, especially in the meat industry, where specific knowledge and experience is a primary requirement. The best meat technical managers have spent most of their career in the meat industry. EC requirements have also meant that their specific knowledge is continually being challenged in many costly ways”.

He does, however, add: “Specific meat training has improved dramatically for new starters and middle management in recent years, as a result of increased EU legislation”.

Andrew Sherwood, HR director at Bernard Matthews, also talks of the impact of legislation: “The amount of change in employment legislation does impact on certain departments, but this is not unique to the meat industry. Our standards have always been and remain very high in all areas. The Agency Workers Regulations being introduced in 2011 will not have an impact on us because we already comply” (For more information on the AWD, see the REC – Recruitment and Employment Confederation - website: ).

And what of the industry’s reputation for hard, un-glamorous work and unsociable hours?Claudia Bird feels this definitely impacts on recruitment and says that when they recruit for retail positions, they get many more applications than when they recruit on the processing side. Andrew Sherwood concurs: “It is probably harder to attract new recruits into the meat industry”.

Adrian Williams adds: “local people are waking up and realising they have to work for a living; they no longer have the luxury of picking and choosing their jobs. Not that working in the meat industry is awful, but it’s hard work and you’re not sitting in front of a computer in a warm office. We have seen a slight change but we have improved staff training in our company. Pay is also a big factor.”

At a management level many companies have introduced leadership training in order to recruit and retain top talent.

Andrew Brodie says: “We've structured development programmes that can apply to new starters as well as our existing managers; this helps us to attract and retain talent. We recognise and develop talent and these are contributory factors in our overall staff turnover being 13%”. He adds that government-funded training may become an issue as this may no longer be freely available.

“This may not be a bad thing though, as “it encourages businesses to identify the training they really need to move forward rather than offering training merely because it is funded. In our training planning for the next few years we are preparing for the fact that this may be predominantly self-funded and this may give us an advantage if other employers reduce training if government funding is removed”.

“Over the past two years, we have introduced a leadership programme for the senior team. We want a leadership team that has a strong cross-functional understanding, fully comprehends our strategy and has strong communication skills and the ability to drive strategic implementation”, adds Andrew Sherwood.

What effect have retailer demands had on the industry?

Adrian Williams comments on the cost implications: “We now have a whole technical team instead of just one person to keep up with retailer requirements. It is a necessary evil we have to pay for that doesn’t directly earn the company any money; we have a team sitting in an office churning out paperwork. A few years ago, this would have been unimaginable, but a different level is expected of manufacturers these days.

“We're facing new and increasing challenges all the time, with all the major retailers seemingly competing with each other when it comes to imposing more and more stringent requirements and audits. We’re supposed to be low risk, but you wouldn’t believe that when you see the standards we have to work to.”

“Retailers are “looking for sustainability and a good, dependable workforce within their supply chain. They are looking for good employment practice from their suppliers”, says Andrew Brodie.

“This necessity to work hard at attracting, training and retaining employees in the meat industry does have some positive outcomes, though.'' Claudia Bird says as a result of all their in-house training, theirs is a very loyal workforce.

“We aim to recruit locally and look after our employees”, says Andrew Brodie. “We offer a competitive pay structure and permanent employment. All factory employees undertake an NVQ within their first year and, once qualified, receive a significant salary increase; this motivates staff to develop their skills and stay with the business.”

Andrew Sherwood adds: “As a company, we're well-known for treating agency staff well, paying them in line with our own workers, which is generally higher than our competitors. We were pleased to have been highlighted as an ‘employer of choice’ for agency workers in a recent report from the Equal and Human Rights Commission.

“Recruitment for factory workers is not always easy, but this has been fairly consistent in recent years. However, once someone decides to stay, they tend to be with us for many years.”

Overall, then, it appears the meat industry is changing. Companies are more flexible regarding candidate background/experience when they recruit, looking more for general aptitude in ‘factory floor’ workers and technical and legislation knowledge in their managers.

Increased training has increased job satisfaction, resulting in high levels of employee loyalty. The workforce in the meat industry is better trained and better qualified than ever. Is this a new era for a previously much maligned industry sector? As Andrew Brodie says: “With the right skill base the UK meat industry has real potential to be a growth sector for UK manufacturing.”

* Frederika Roberts is business operations manager at Jarvis Johnson, and Joint MD at Jarvis Johnson Expert Solutions

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