Food for thought

Posted on 18 Jan 2010 by The Manufacturer

Angela Coleshill of the Food and Drink Federation is the latest to give her view on the Skills for Growth strategy...

The launch of the Government’s skills strategy caused a flurry of excitement at FDF at the end of last year. We are heartened by the philosophy behind it and feel that the strategy could provide much of the solutions for which we are looking to support our sector’s skills priorities.

We are encouraged by the focus on technical skills and the strategy to provide a better gateway into a career in manufacturing for young people. Our sector has significant shortages in certain areas such as food scientists and technologists. We have been working hard to attract talent for the future, but are frustrated by the current lack of new entrants leaving education with the right technical skills and aspirations to start a career in our sector. Lord Mandleson’s recent speech to the Works Foundation talked of ‘an indifference to manufacturing in the UK economy with neglect of science, engineering, technology and skills.’ Despite this, he reports that the British manufacturing sector’s output in both value and volume has remained stable in the past decade; this is in part due to the UK’s flexible labour market.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this ‘indifference’ has been the impact this has had on how young people (and their parents) view manufacturing – certainly not as an aspirational career path. Yet we have significant numbers of young people in the UK who seem to have little direction or motivation and find themselves without a job or hope of a future career. I am alarmed at the figure of almost one million NEETs (not in employment, education or training) in England, the highest number on record with nearly one in every six 16 – 24 year olds falling into this category. This is very sad for our society and yet the food and drink manufacturing sector still struggles to find the right people to fill our skills gaps.

If UK manufacturing is to compete globally we need to ensure that we are able to attract the calibre of staff that will sustain us and provide the innovation that is vital to our competitiveness. This level of innovation is highly dependant on skilled people – the plans for a new British technician class will help to fill a longstanding gap in the skills market, particularly the plans for a dramatic expansion of Apprenticeships, along with the Diploma in Manufacturing and Product Design launched last year for 14 to 19 year olds.

Turning to the Diploma, this has been developed and designed by employer-run Sector Skills Councils but although schools have said that it ‘significantly enhances pupil learning and enthusiasm’, the take up has been mixed. We need to get to the bottom of why this is. There are many theories, one of which is that schools are just not geared up to deliver the diploma for their pupils and that there is a lack of local employer engagement and understanding of what is required. FDF will be lobbying hard with our SSC Improve to improve the situation.

Simplification of the skills landscape is a high priority, particularly around the provision of clearer information to employers on how the system works. The complexity at times has been quite confusing for many companies, which is another barrier to attracting the right candidates.

We see the food and drink manufacturing sector as an important priority for future economic growth in the UK, so we are pleased that the strategy has recommended provision of additional funding for apprentices, maximising the provision of jobs, including within the area of advanced manufacturing.