Finding skilled employees and enough bodies to do the job is becoming more difficult for UK's food and drink manufacturers, according to a new report outlining the problem.
The widening skills gap and employee shortfall in the sector is highlighted in a report published by the organisation, a jointly-funded training venture founded by the UK government and the foodand drink industry.
Poorly trained employees are harder to manage and need more time to get up to speed on the plant floor. A shortage also means employers have to pay more to get and retain the quality they want.
More critically for the health of the industry, it could also push more and more food and drink companies to relocating to other countries in search of employees, said Paula Widdowson,Improve's commercial director.
Companies, including big employers such Heinz and Kraft, have been relocating plants to places like Russia, China and Eastern Europe partially in response to the UK's shortage of skilled employees,Widdowson told FoodProductionDaily.com.
"Many are relocating to the food and drink cluster forming around Prague," she said.
The expected shortfall in employees is expected to reach about 200,000 in the UK's most productive sector within the next eight years, Improve estimates.
The UK's food and drink industry has one of the most poorly qualified workforces in the UK. About 19 per cent of the sector's workforce has no qualifications, compared to the average of 11 per centfor the total UK workforce, Improve says. One third of staff in the processing sector have no qualifications at all.
The problem is mainly due to changing demographics rather than growth in the industry. As more people retire there are less people available to replace them.
The shortage is especially acute in people who can operate and service machinery. Companies are also having problems finding skilled food and drink managers and supervisors.
"The shortage of technical operators is a massive issue," Widdowson said.
The danger is the UK's largest manufacturing sector could lose out in the development of its infrastructure, productivity and knowledge base, she said. The sector has an annual turnover of £66billion and employs 650,000 people.
While there are about 45,000 companies operating in the sector, about 2,000 of them are responsible for employing 400,000 staff.
"It only takes a few big companies to leave to have a knock on effect on the infrastructure," Widdowson said.
The sector has a 22 per cent better productivity rate than the US. It is 28 per cent better in productivity than the European average.
"We are the world leader in productivity and this will be affected,"Widdowson said."
A skills and employee shortage could harm this productivity.
To address the shortage, the body has drawn up the industry's first ever job classification. The draft document describes every job function in the food and drink industry and the skills needed toperform the function. When finished the document will be used as a guide to trainers, whether in the private or public sector, so they can adjust their courses to the changing job functions.
Earlier this year Improve also established a system to provide employers with an accredited system for checking the qualifications of potential employees. The "Green Card" system alsoallows employees to have a verified record of the skills they have acquired along the way.
The data will be accredited, centrally-held, and accessible through the Internet. The system is still under trial and is intended for employers, colleges, training providers and employment agenciesthroughout the UK.
Representatives from 10 colleges, including six in food and drink manufacturing vocational centres are among those supporting the system.
Another target is opening up apprenticeship programmes in the food and drink sector.
Some in the food industry and those dependent on its continued health have responded by investing money and time in working on the problem.
For example, Ishida Europe this month donated a state-of-the-art packing machinery line for a new technical food training centre at the University of Lincoln's Holbeach campus.
The centre will form part of a new specialised building for Holbeach, which has also recently completed a £3 million refurbishment of its existing premises.
The new Holbeach campus facility will be completed by January 2007, and will be run as a operating food manufacturing site with working practices to reflect this.
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