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Addressing engineering skills challenges

24 February 2023

Suzanne Gill explores how food processors might start to address the current skills shortage and finds out how the sector could have greater success in recruiting, training and retaining engineers.

As a supplier of factory automation into the food industry, Festo has identified a falling level of skills within the food processing industry. “In broad terms the issue impacts recruitment, training or upskilling of existing engineers and then in retaining the skilled engineers already in place,” said Neil Lewin, National Key Account Manager - End users at Festo UK. “All of these areas need to be addressed as one if improvement efforts are to be sustainable.”

Recruitment has been a longstanding challenge for the food industry as the sector is rarely seen as an immediate choice for young engineers keen to make their mark on the world. “Young engineers today want to have a positive impact on the planet, they want to work with robots and artificial intelligence (AI) and they want clear career progression,” he said. While all this exists within the food industry, the sector’s marketing strategies rarely highlight the use of technology – more often marketing alludes to food being lovingly prepared in kitchens by chefs!

“Festo has seen a huge increase in demand for energy efficiency services to help reduce carbon footprints. In the majority of cases these projects are led by inspired graduates and the results often see huge savings for the business,” continued Lewin.

He went on to highlight the importance of not overlooking the need for computing and data skills. “The latest AI software is being applied in both predictive maintenance and predictive quality applications in the UK, which is resulting in new career opportunities in data analysis, bringing step changes in overall equipment efficiency (OEE) and creating a more proactive role for maintenance technicians which is helping to raise the profile of the role.

There is also a requirement to ensure that investment in development is matched with that of attracting new recruits. “There is an opportunity to transfer knowledge between the older and newer generation,” said Lewin. Both will have something to learn from the other and this can help build ownership and engagement in the business. As an ex-apprentice I have to say that the current role of an engineer in the food industry is far more exciting from a technology and problem-solving perspective than I have ever seen. We just need to reach out and tell the world what we have to offer.”

A barrier to development
“Whenever I discuss operational challenges with senior managers in the food industry finding qualified and capable engineers is invariably mentioned,” said Gary Wyles, Managing Director and Founder of management consultancy company, E3 Leadership Development. 

In addition to keeping production moving the engineering skills shortage also poses a barrier to the future development of many businesses. “Gone are the times when it was possible for employers to ‘harvest’ the best talent from an abundance of well-trained and capable engineers,” said Wyles. “Employers have had to rely more on a ‘pick your own’ approach – seeking out engineers from overseas or headhunting the required skills from other companies – often direct competitors. With greater barriers to immigration and an aging workforce, the flow of engineers into the talent pool is now much slower than the flow out! 

“Engineers also appear to be staying in their roles for a shorter time. Where demand outstrips supply, it is much easier for talented individuals to seek out new positions that better match their financial and work/life balance needs. A vicious cycle that greatly restricts the ability of employers to compete effectively and pursue strategies for growth, especially in sectors where technology advances can be a critical differentiator.”

Sadly, there appears to be no short-term fix to these issues. Even a concerted effort to make it easier to attract and relocate engineers from overseas would bring limited short-term gains. It would certainly help, but the UK no longer represents the attractive market for engineers that it once did. 

Wyles went on to ponder ‘how food processors might have more impact on the future than the future has on them. He said: “Employers will need to take a longer-term view and become more proactive in developing the engineering skills we need for the future. If we are to make an impact on the future availability of talented engineers, we must supplement the ‘pick you own’ approach with strategies for ‘grow your own’.” 

In recent years, some progress has been made, with a stronger focus being put on apprenticeship schemes to run alongside, and connect to, more academically biased qualification programs. This practical ‘grow your own’ approach brings benefits – building experience in the workplace alongside a solid training program to develop appropriate knowledge and skills. Not only does this help to bring future talent into the sector, but it also enables employers to hone the specific skills required in their business. However, to retain that talent, it is necessary to think carefully about how to support and develop apprentices. In the modern world, employee loyalty needs to be earned.

One area to focus on should be how managers and mentors lead their people to ensure that they are engaged, enabled and empowered. Leadership and coaching skills have become essential components of a company strategy that aims to make a greater impact on future performance and results.

“So far so good,” continued Wyles. “However, too few young people in the UK are drawn to a career in engineering on their journey through the education system. Many are unaware of what engineering is and those that are, often have been left with a skewed view about the profession. I have heard many times well-meaning parents advising their children that ‘engineering is a messy greasy job, you should look for something better’. Changing that perception, so that engineering justly competes alongside IT and other sciences as a profession of great worth, needs to start at a very young age.

“Few organisations and employers, however, see any value in connecting with primary schools. This is understandable because any payback is difficult to assess and would naturally be long term. Yet, surely children of this age are at their most impressionable? Especially if they can get their hands on something and make it work! So, this is where food processors really need to start ‘sowing the seeds’ with their local schools, if they are to grow sufficient interest to create the engineers of the future that they need,” concluded Wyles.

Masters of our own destiny
The final comments on engineering skills goes to Chris Edwards, Head of Quality at Müller Yogurts and Desserts, who faces the issues it poses on a day-to-day basis. He said:  “We have the ‘demand,’ but we don’t have the ‘supply’ when it comes to competent engineers – by competent I mean people that are trained and that have experience, ability and knowledge – to drive safety, quality, service and costs.  

“So, we need to become masters of our own destinies, through collaboration within specialities. We also need to create a larger cross sector industry skills group where influence can be exerted on Government and education suppliers,” continued Edwards. He went on to point out the need to create organisations in which young people can see the potential and career structures which may include job roles such as food engineers, technologists, software specialists, AI etc. “Larger and medium size companies need to look beyond their own needs – which for many will be a difficult pill to swallow. Common frameworks through common suppliers with common apprenticeships/degrees/diplomas will give ‘scale’ to the education suppliers to draw down any funding.  Smaller companies can then draw on this scale and volume.”  

The entire food industry supply chain needs to recognise that the need for competent people is their issue to address. Competition is high, so the food sector as a whole needs to find ways to make itself attractive to competent engineers. “To enable ‘scale’ for education suppliers there needs to be more collaboration across the food industry. Adopting an attitude of an 80:20 fit, where we must understand we can’t have everything as individual companies but we can develop a base education in the disciplines of engineering and technology,” concluded Edwards.

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