Filling the recruitment gap in food manufacturing

When it was reported last month that the food manufacturing and distribution sector faced an unprecedented labour crisis and worker shortage of 500,000, it made headline news. This pivotal moment for the industry demonstrated the need for a shift change to fill the recruitment gap and create a sustainable future for the food manufacturing industry.

COVID disruption coupled with the impact of Brexit on EU workers has led to a shortage of workers across the whole supply chain. For example, the implementation of the new skilled worker visa has had a big impact on meat processors who are not eligible, unlike fish and poultry processors who are.

However, alongside the two current issues, these are other reasons the sector is facing challenges around recruitment and retention that have long been in development including working conditions and culture, and attracting a diverse talent pool.

What does this mean for the industry?

The worst-case scenario is the huge labour deficit could lead to food and drink shortages for the UK, particularly in the short term.  We have already seen the likes of McDonalds take milkshakes and bottled drinks off the menu and Nandos closes 50 branches due to the shortage of HGV lorry drivers creating supply chain disruption.

The COVID pandemic meant HGV driving tests came to a halt creating a huge backlog, preventing many new drivers getting on the roads. And as travel restrictions came into play, many HGV drivers returned home, and as the UK left the single market the additional post-Brexit border controls means many have not chosen to return.

The pandemic has also escalated a change in worker attitudes and employee demands. It’s no longer just about the money. Employees want good working conditions, flexible working, incentives and training. Whether it’s a factory worker or lorry driver, for too long the industry has had a poor reputation when it comes to working standards and competing with other more inclusive and progressive industries.

How do we fill the recruitment gap in food manufacturing?

Although the issues mentioned above are relatively recent, the industry has long since had a problem around recruitment and development. A longer-term strategy is also needed to develop the technology and skills required for the sector to grow at an education and regional level so more students from diverse communities pursue STEM subjects and training

In the shorter term here are some other ways the industry can attract new talent and retain existing staff:

  • Introducing incentives

The job site Indeed reported a 66% increase of job adverts offering joining bonuses between April and August, with big players such as Asda and Arla providing £1000+. Waitrose and Aldi have increased their driver wages. Although this could be sustainable for the larger national brands, smaller business may not be able survive such a hike in wages. But there could be other ways to offer an incentive to entice workers, including shopper discounts, profit share and private healthcare.

  • Improving employee culture and wellbeing

New Horizons Baking Co recently held an employee workshop to find out what they really wanted from the business to keep them in their jobs. The biggest response came from ensuring a better work-life balance. A four day week is now being trialed and more emphasis placed on career progression and training for recruits.

With only 1% of HGV drivers being female, it’s an industry with a lot of work to do in order to attract and appeal to women drivers. Improving working conditions and culture will play a big part in that change.

  • New legislation

The introduction of a Covid-19 Recovery Visa would enable the industry to recruit for vacant roles from abroad in the short-term but major food federations are calling for a more permanent solution to bridge the recruitment gap British workers may never be able to fill.

  • Marketing and promoting the industry

The industry has had a bit of a PR problem in that it doesn’t come across as glamourous or awe-inspiring as other industries. However, over the pandemic there has been a shift in perception with those working in the industry recognised as ‘key workers’, playing a huge role in keeping the country going during those incredibly difficult and challenging times. It also introduced many people to the sector as they took on roles during furlough who may not have thought about the industry before. Reading stories of the BA pilot staying in his lorry driver role because of the better pay and lifestyle are interesting stories to share.

Being visible and engaging in education settings including attending career fairs, offering quality apprenticeship schemes, being more vocal about successes and making positive changes around working conditions are all actions that will play their part in filling the gap.

However, the impact of many of these changes is likely to take years to fully be enjoyed, which could mean experiencing disruption to our shopping habits in the shorter term.

FESS Group supports food manufacturers with their production and engineering needs, supplying on site workers and specialists as required. If you would like to discuss your business needs and how we can help, please get in touch info@fessgroup.co.uk

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