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Young food engineers want job satisfaction

22 January 2014

Key members of the UK food industry met in January 2014 to establish a unified strategy to encourage more young people into food engineering.

Representatives from companies such as Festo, Nestle, Arla Foods, the National Skills Academy and the Baker Dearing Educational Trust met at the premises of Knight Warner in Chesterfield.

Kevin Parkin, managing director of Knight Warner, who chaired the event, said it was crucial that the potential engineering skills shortage within food manufacturing was addressed, citing ‘hefty challenges’ that the industry faces over the next 10 to 15 years.

“In many countries, the average age of an engineer is 50,” Parkin told Food Processing, “and investment in skills and in house trained apprentices has been too low. Other industries are able to secure the best people because manufacturing has not been perceived as a ‘worthwhile sector’. This needs to be addressed if we are to move forwards.

“25 years ago, Government sponsored schemes were consistent across the country, enabling engineers to be trained at a competent level. Today, 13 to 15 year olds need to be persuaded that manufacturing is an ideal way to create a good income with companies that have been around a long time. Not only that, apprenticeships / part time degrees are a route to a good qualification at zero cost.

“However, careers advisers have little experience outside academia and the message is not getting across. We hope to get a consistent message across by explaining to teachers, pupils and kids that a career in the food industry is extremely rewarding. It is good for the company and, ultimately, keeps the UK competitive.

“There are already initiatives in place. Work-wise, for example, is an employer inspired and led initiative for engineering, manufacturing and related sectors to support the development of young people so they have the knowledge, skills, aptitude and opportunities for employment within the Sheffield City Region. We have proven that it works by having pipelines of apprentices and relationships with local manufacturers that keeps employment local and stops valuable skills draining away to the south east.”

Justine Fosh, CEO at The NSA, highlighted the need for industry and academia to work together. “The challenges are not just UK based, it’s a Europe-wide problem,” she asserted. “There is a large cost to attend careers shows, so why can’t we get all the companies to share the financial burden? We should coordinate and collaborate – and we need to ask how to push engineering into food & drink to make it an industry that young people are proud to be part of.”

A recent survey conducted by the NSA highlighted the fact that industry-perceived USPs may not be what young people are looking for. Young people were asked what messages would inspire them to join the industry and, surprisingly above-average salaries and job security were not the most important factors. “They replied, ‘We want job satisfaction’,” said Fosh. “So we need ambassadors to inspire them, but it’s not going to happen straight away. It’s about scale and Governments aren’t interested in funding for skills initiatives – they believe it’s down to companies.”

Martin Howarth, head of systems engineering and technology at Sheffield Hallam University, added the importance of retaining young engineers. “We have an insufficient number of people who can be selected,” he said. “The perception of a career in food manufacturing is that the salary is low and so youngsters often move out of engineering degrees. Other industries will also poach people with engineering degrees as they are well respected qualifications that can result in high salaries.”

Martin Farrar, market electrical engineer at Nestle, highlighted the fact that food manufacturing engineering is facing a potential crisis. “Unless something changes there will be with a shortage of competent resource within 10 years,” he warned. “The primary reason is lack of interest from school leavers and the National Skills Academy has already analysed this. The root cause is that it is perceived as a dull job – rather than money or security and this means there is an urgent need to inspire 11 to 18 year olds. We need more opportunities such as NSA Ambassadors, Work-wise and Get up to Speed). Coordination is also needed to make best use of limited resources to attend events.”

Grant Collier, head of marketing and publishing, PPMA Group of Associations, said: “‘It is good to see that so many senior members of some very large organisations are taking a proactive approach to making in roads into the significant skills shortage and lack of apprenticeships available throughout the food sector. There are an estimated 170,000 vacancies that will need filled across the sector in the decade leading up to 2020.”

Chris Edwards OBE, TD, senior HR consultant at Arla Foods said there were five key points that needed to be addressed: “Firstly, a strategic plan and plenty of stakeholder management is required and a coordinated plan across business groups. There should be no mixed messages and the need to collaborate was highlighted. Finally, we must recognise what ‘good’ looks like and what is happening here and now.”

Appetite for Skills will continue throughout 2014, with events taking place at: Holbeach Campus (University of Lincoln) - Wednesday 19 March; Sheffield Hallam University - Thursday 3 April; University of Nottingham - Thursday 3 July; University Technical College Wigan - Thursday 10 July; and Reaseheath College - date tba. An additional venue is currently being discussed.

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