Photo courtesy of MDS

Apprentice hub launches in Kent to boost fresh produce workforce

Produce Business report

A new initiative launched by MDS and Growing Kent & Medway is aiming to get non-graduates and career changers into the fresh produce business through the creation of an “apprenticeship hub” in Kent.

The two-year pilot program is designed to offer a fast track into the industry via a number of businesses to those seeking different future careers. The scheme not only can help fresh produce grow at a time where demand is soaring and workers are at a premium but also embolden the area’s workforce.

“The route into fresh produce is not always obvious, or those considering it at a career crossroads may be reluctant to start over and spend time working their way up,” said Kristy Barden, business development manager at MDS. “It is a vibrant industry full of opportunity, and with Growing Talent, we are offering a fully supported first step on the ladder, whatever your knowledge or skills. Core to the pilot will be the mentoring and additional training we give alongside work secondments, building confidence professionally and personally which develops not only the trainee but the businesses they work for.”

Already this year, MDS, which provides training for the food and horticultural supply chain, has created two programmes to help individuals gain skills – Leadership & Management and Operations & Development – which serve non-graduates and graduates already in the workplace. The Growing Talent project is targeted at those have two or more years of work experience and might be considering a jobs change but want to remain in the Kent area. MDS says there will be “four different work secondments over 18 months to two years, supported by mentoring and training to align with Apprenticeship levels 3 and 5.”

Depending on how well the program is received in Kent, other regional workforce hubs could be launched too across the UK. These types of initiatives have been ultra-successful in parts of the UK, Europe and South America, according to MDS but this is first time that all four secondments will occur in one location.

“Joining the Growing Talent apprenticeship hub is a fantastic opportunity for fresh produce businesses to tackle recruitment challenges and develop a skilled workforce with strong roots in the area,” said Dr. Nikki Harrison, director for the Growing Kent and Medway programme, which is funded by UKRI and led by NIAB at East Malling. “We are leveraging the experience and training of MDS to recruit local people, put them through the development programme and provide them with the experience and skill sets required by the industry. By doing their secondments within the hub, trainees can gain valuable experience without having to relocate and get support to find permanent roles within businesses in their local area.”

Growing Kent & Medway is a research, innovation and enterprise cluster that connects businesses in support of innovation to be a world leader sustainable horticultural food and drink production. Growers, processors, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs are all involved in the project. MDS said it is seeing tremendous interest from those without college credentials but with some experience in retail, care and hospitality making the shift since the pandemic began. The training programme could be available for staff at fresh produce companies, too, that utilise the apprenticeship levy.

“I didn’t know much about it before I started, but working in fresh produce is varied, fast-paced and can be very rewarding,” said trainee India Dodge-Forder. “Training with MDS, the mentoring and the support you get from the group of the other trainees, is what makes all the difference. I have learned so much very quickly and built up my confidence. There’s also so much more to fresh produce than production. There’s project management, science and research, engineering, data analysis and marketing if you want to keep pushing up the ladder.”

MDS is hosting a ‘Lunch and Learn’ webinar session this Thursday. Those interested in attending or learning more about the programme can contact Barden at 01733 595123 or For those employees looking to change careers, there is a Rural Youth Project Festival on 20th May. They can apply at



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