Mixing up the ingredients in the skills pot

Posted on 1 Mar 2010 by The Manufacturer

The recent release of government’s national skills strategy ‘Skills for Growth’ provided the latest in a long line of calls for a more married up approach to skills provision which would see educators work with industry to provide ‘real world’ skills rather than token qualifications. The food and drink industry believes it is leading in this regard. Mark Young explores

The food and drink industry is “at the very forefront of innovation in skills,” according to Jack Matthews, chief executive of the food and drink sector skills council, Improve. “Our mission is to achieve world-class skills for a world-class sector,” he says, “and by increasing our engagement with employers we plan to go on increasing the level of skills and the number of people developing their skills at all levels in the industry … and to continue addressing the particular needs in food science and technology to close skills gaps and reduce unfilled vacancies.”

Here’s how they plan to do it.

Improve is overseeing the creation of two new families of qualifications as part of a cross-industry development project. The Improve Proficiency Qualifications (IPQs) and Improve Vocational Qualifications (IVQs) have been developed with feed in from industry, and will replace the current NVQs that serve the sector. The structure has been developed by Improve, but the individual units – over 1,000 of which are in the latter stage of development – will be accredited by existing awarding organisations. The IPQ will serve existing food and drink workers while the IVQ is for prospective employees.

Fully adaptable to the needs of individual businesses, the new system “will effectively be the industry’s first common currency for skills,” says Matthews. “It will allow employees to accumulate building blocks of skills awards that can meet their specific needs while also forming the basis of longer term personal development, contributing towards many different career pathways, and counting towards accredited national qualifications.” The qualifications will be based around nine specific areas of food manufacturing. Three of these areas – bakery, brewing and manufacturing excellence – have led the initiative, and will be the first to go live in May or June of this year. The other six are: fish processing; milling and cereals; red meat; poultry; and sweets and confectionery.

Each area has been developed with the aid of a focus group comprising manufacturers and trade organisations from each respective sub-sector.

The services of these groups will be called upon at regular intervals during the introduction of the units and subsequently beyond, to ensure continuous improvement of the delivery through feedback and evaluation.

The right recipe for apprenticeships
The structure of food and drink modern apprenticeships have been significantly revamped to allow employers to introduce their own learning programmes. These too will be based on the new IPQ and IVQS.

Apprenticeships are to be aligned with the new Qualifications and Credit Framework (QCF) – the credit-based accreditation system for work-based training and qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – from next year.

Employers will be able to pick and choose from the units being developed for the IPQs and IVQs, Improve development director Derek Williams saying this may even lead to companies developing their own in-house Apprenticeships.

“Employers will have much more power in specifying the content, process and delivery of training. Instead of opting for pre-packaged Apprenticeships with mainly fixed content, employers will be able to specify what they want for their business,” he said.

“The great advantage of IPQs and IVQs is that because they are credit-based, they are extremely flexible. Virtually every skill, job role or function needed to work in any company in the food and drink industry can be given a credit rating and incorporated into one of these new qualifications.

We have been able to work directly with employers, ask them about the skills and knowledge they need, and build that into units within the IPQs and IVQs.

“The flexibility of the new qualifications will translate directly to Apprenticeships. This will offer [manufacturers] the freedom to specify exactly what their apprentices learn to suit the specific needs of the business.”

Share the knowledge, share the wealth
In another example of how the food and drink sector is breaking new ground in terms of collaboration between industry and skills, Manchester Metropolitan University has partnered with the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing for an Innovation and Growth initiative that is “informed by and responsive to the needs of smaller food and drink businesses.” The premise of the initiative is a reciprocal information share which involves collating currently practiced skills from food and drink manufacturers and then building higher level training modules out of the unlocked knowledge which can then be utilised by other companies.

The partnership has sourced best practice in areas including leadership; lean manufacturing; business strategies; product and process innovation; market exploitation; commercial skills; environmental awareness; and food science technology from companies across the region. Accredited National Skills Academy training providers in the North West will then work together to pass on these skills to employers who can, once again, create bespoke training programmes by cherry-picking the capabilities they need for their operation.

Some of the employers involved include Butt Foods, Goodlife Foods and Richard Whittaker.

Moreover, the initiative is backed by Improve, the Sector Skills Council, and funded by the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the Northwest Universities Association.

The parties involved say it is an innovative approach to unlocking ‘real world’ vocational skills which they hope to see adopted across other sectors of manufacturing and the wider UK industry beyond.

Clare Keegan, business development manager at the National Skills Academy, said: “Our aim is to help business leaders in the North West region to become more productive and efficient by delivering programmes that are specific, relevant and deliver business benefit.”

A sweet approach to skills
Having achieved near saturation point of NVQ to at least level two for all employees, Swizzels Matlow – the Midlands producer of ever-more popular sweetie treats including Love Hearts, Drumstick Lollies and Refresher bars – will almost certainly be among the first food and drink companies to experience the new IVQ and IPQs. And, on face value, the new qualifications should suit the company’s training culture well.

Tony Salt, training and development director, explains that he and his team devise most of the company’s training in house but use a partnership with an academic institution in order to validate standards and, where possible, provide recognised accreditation for employees.

“Where an organisation already has a strong training culture it is my belief that employers are best placed to select and conduct training for their staff,” he says. “The role of the training provider should be changed to offer a service in partnership with employers to facilitate learning in the workplace and verify the learning at each stage. The training provider role should be shifted to academic institutions, as recommended in the Leitch Review, but these institutions should also undergo their own learning experience in how to work in partnership with employers.” The IPQs and IVQs will seemingly marry up well with Swizzels-Matlow’s culture, in terms of providing bespoke packages of capabilities for individual companies which can still be recognised with qualifications.

In recent years Salt has orchestrated a major change within the company’s training practices, from the “sitting next to Nellie” approach to a culture based on the same premise of peer assisted learning — but one that is more considered, more accountable and more efficient.

Salt still rates peer assisted learning. One initiative he has implemented is to have members of staff write manuals for the machinery they use, in everyday English that is universally understood, rather than technology-based jargon. And, like the ‘Nellie’ method, he still has process workers teaching new members of staff the bulk of how to do the day job. It is important, he says, that trainers remain in their normal roles as well as taking on development roles because it is easier for them to build empathy and trust with those they are instructing. But it is also crucial that they are accredited with acknowledged qualifications that are validated by recognised awarding organisations.

“Our partnership with our training provider ensures our employees learn the right aptitudes through the right attitude,” he says.

Salt feels that overall the food and drink industry has forged effective links between companies and the skills sphere and says Improve has especially done a good job to this end. “I sincerely believe that the over the last six years the sector skills council has worked damned hard to ensure flexibility and bespoke training packages,” he says.

There are still a few more improvements that can be made, though. For one, he feels the Learning and Skills Council insists on a far too bureaucratic process to skills provision which can hold up progress and, for two, “academic institution and the Learning and Skills Council also need to realise that the year doesn’t end on July 31 and restart at the beginning of September!” He also says that while there are a plethora of training advisors available through the skills network who are a credit to the system, there are many that are not at a satisfactory standard or whose skill sets are not specific enough for the areas they are working in and it is these that undermine the skills provision sphere overall.

“There are many training providers that have no idea about making food, yet are still delivering NVQ level two in food manufacture. It doesn’t make sense to me. Hopefully the new QCF system will change that.” But overall, he concludes: “The advantages of working with an academic institution far outweigh the disadvantages, and a partnership of like-minds with similar aims and objectives can be rewarding for all concerned.” The food and drink industry has shown that it is taking positive steps toward creating a more joined up culture between manufacturers and support organisations when it comes to skills. Hopefully over the coming months these initiatives will prove successful and the rest of manufacturing can reproduce these models themselves.

One thing that other areas of industry can learn from food and drink right now though is not to try and second guess the needs of the industry. “IPQs and IVQs have been developed because employers asked for a next generation of competence, with a simplified yet customisable structure,” says Derek Williams. “So, instead of additional qualifications, we’ve worked with industry to create a replacement for NVQs which go above and beyond their predecessor.” The food and drink and industry has spoken, and it appears to have found ears that are listening.

The rest of manufacturing needs to make more noise and it needs more people to hear.