Tackling skills shortages in food and drink manufacturing

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
June, 2016

The food and drink industry is the UK's largest manufacturing sector, employing around 400,000 people - yet it requires 109,000 new recruits by 2022

A severe skills shortage, an ageing workforce and the industry's impressive resistance to any economic downturn have ensured that scientists, technologists and engineers are in particularly high demand, commanding sizeable salaries too.

The range of interesting and challenging careers available is one major perk of the sector. Exciting tasks range from creating a new product that'll be enjoyed by millions globally, to improving existing products, packaging and processes. Charlotte Mummery, head of talent acquisition at Nestlé UK and Ireland, says that you could even do both.

'It's no longer unusual for manufacturing professionals to move cross-functionally, and this enables you to have a rewarding and broad career without moving companies,' she explains.

How are these skills shortages being addressed?

Despite the sector's advantages, replacing around 28% of the current workforce is proving an incredible challenge - one that has required the industry's professional body, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), to work with its members to address the problem.

Several key steps have been taken to build awareness of the sector's variety of career opportunities. Selga Speakman-Havard, competitiveness policy manager, says that the organisation's actions centre on collaboration with further and higher education bodies. Initiatives include:

  • the 'Taste Success – A Future in Food' careers campaign, which encourages young people, parents and teachers to recognise the rewarding opportunities within the industry;
  • the attempt to grow female participation by supporting the government's 'Your Life' campaign, and pledging to attract women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers within food and drink manufacturing;
  • the planned development of three degree apprenticeships, which aim to enhance the sector's productivity - in December 2015, the FDF launched a new apprenticeship pledge to grow the number of apprenticeships from 1% to 3% against a 2014/15 baseline.

Perhaps the most notable move by the FDF, however, was the commissioning of Sheffield Hallam University's BEng/MEng Food Engineering - a multidisciplinary programme that has been designed and developed in conjunction with more than 40 major food and drink companies.

What does the BEng/MEng Food Engineering involve?

Ultimately, if you're looking for a career in food and drink manufacturing, BEng/MEng Food Engineering is an option worth some consideration.

Application, employability and industrial experience is at the programme's heart, with students undertaking three guaranteed different placements in the summer months of their degree. Participants are also allocated an industrial mentor - a professional engineer who provides advice and support throughout.

'Unlike other engineering courses, every student is guaranteed a placement opportunity within the UK,' explains Andrew Rawsthorne, senior lecturer and course leader of BEng/MEng Food Engineering.

The programme's content reflects the breadth of engineering within the sector. Topics include the fundamentals of mechanical engineering, to understand heat transfer and how fluids flow, and robotics, to understand how automation and robotics is used as part of a fully automated manufacturing system.

'It also includes aspects of manufacturing engineering, and electrical and electronic engineering,' adds Andrew, 'plus some knowledge around food science and processing, to understand the effect of the different engineering interventions upon the final food or drink product.'

What skills do you need to work in food and drink manufacturing?

The BEng/MEng, like many other food science or chemical engineering options, is geared towards meeting employer needs. It therefore provides students with essential employability skills - in teamwork, leadership, presentation, communication, commercial awareness, and verbal and numerical reasoning.

Studying such a qualification also allows graduates to impress key recruiters with their knowledge of food technology, thirst for change, and ability to learn and develop.

Francesca Paulley, talent and resourcing specialist at United Biscuits, emphasises that ‘those who've gained experience as an intern or on a placement are at a distinct advantage’ - giving Sheffield Hallam University's programme even greater credibility. ‘A passion for the industry makes working within it so much more rewarding,' she adds.

Charlotte says that Nestlé look to hire people who'll challenge what has been the norm, and who have the potential to grow with the role. Indeed, being a 'fit' for the organisation and sharing its values can be just as important as educational attainment.

'We see many graduates with fantastic educational achievements, but they don't have the required energy and enthusiasm to make it through the assessment process,' Charlotte explains.

Andrew has the last word if you're unsure whether this career truly is for you. 'Working within food and drink manufacturing is fantastic, exciting and fulfilling,' he says. 'Roles involve lots of innovation and are very fast-moving.'