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Turning the next generation into food and drink engineers

11 July 2016

Technology is omnipresent in young people’s lives and this represents a huge opportunity for sectors of UK industry that are struggling with skills shortages, says Mark Yeeles

One-in-three children in the UK own a smartphone today, while two-in-five own a tablet computer. Tablets are now also commonly used in the classroom environment and since 2014 coding has been a mandatory part of the national curriculum.

According to the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), the food and beverage industry needs to recruit 109,000 people by 2022, with a large proportion of these requiring engineering skills due to the increasing use of automation and robotics in food and beverage manufacturing.

The only way that we can successfully recruit a new wave of highly skilled individuals is by making the manufacturing sector relevant to 15 year-olds. Fortunately, we are in a position to do this. The link between the technology people use in their everyday lives and the technology used in the factory is closer now than at any point in my lifetime. You only need to look at the similarities between the apps children use on their smartphones and web-enabled HMI technology such as that developed by Schneider Electric via its Wonderware brand.

Today’s industrial visualisation software allows food and drink plant operators to monitor and control complex manufacturing processes at the touch or swipe of a flat, portable screen. The food and beverage industry really needs to seize upon this golden opportunity to link the technology used in the factory to young people’s lives. If we miss the opportunity to engage with our future engineers now, within six years time we will struggle to recruit enough people with the right skills into the industry.

The food and beverage industry has another advantage when it comes to establishing a link between young people’s everyday lives and a possible career in manufacturing. Everybody walks around the supermarket, and everybody consumes processed food and drink at some point. Young people therefore easily recognise the branding of some of the UK’s major global food and drink manufacturers, and this high level of brand awareness gives these companies a unique opportunity to engage with a potential future workforce. 

I believe that the key to transforming a young person with an interest in food and drink manufacturing into a future engineer or technician is to educate their parents and teachers about the opportunities available in the industry.
I have youngsters myself going through GCSE options at the moment, and I have to say that current schooling does not adequately support manufacturing because teachers don’t understand it, or the opportunities that it can provide.
Some manufacturers are making a concerted effort to reach out to schools and colleges. Earlier this year engineers from Allied Bakeries, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Twinings gathered at London’s Science Museum to meet young people interested in the industry, while others have opened up their factory doors to local schools.
However, while these initiatives are welcome, they need to happen on a much wider scale to have any lasting impact. Likewise, some of the negative messages about food manufacturing, especially when it comes to the media’s portrayal of robotics and automation, need to be countered.

Embracing technology
We only ever seem to hear about automation and robots in the context of them taking over the role of the human being. In reality, however, often the introduction of greater automation means the creation of more highly skilled jobs. Robots and other technology are transforming food and drink manufacturing into a more effective, efficient and modern industry.

If one thing is certain, it is that the workforce of the future already knows how to embrace everyday technology in order to improve their lives… so the key to encouraging them to pursue careers as food and beverage engineers lies in helping them to embrace a hi-tech food and drink industry too.

Mark Yeeles is industry director for Schneider Electric in the UK.

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