By Gill McShane
Having in the past mainly contributed to funding academic research projects for UK horticulture and their associated travel overseas, The Worshipful Company of Fruiterers is moving its focus into other areas of support in an effort to continue addressing the shifting challenges of the modern-day fruit industry. Graham Collier, chairman of the Awards Council of the Fruiterers Company, reveals the new plans to drive recruitment that will set in motion at The Fresh Careers Fair 2018.
“As a charitable organisation supporting research, education and opportunities within the fresh produce sector, the Fruiterers Company has a long history of helping to address major industry challenges,” Collier says. “We have supported the fruit and fresh produce business for over 400 years, reacting to the many challenges along the way.
“Now, our industry faces the big question of labour; a challenge which we hope presents opportunities for those starting their career paths to join and experience the fascinating and rewarding world of fruit and fresh produce.”
With the advent of Brexit, Collier points out that every business in the UK fresh sector – from fruit and vegetable producers, agri-food processors and foodservice operators to the hospitality, financial services and manufacturing industries – is facing an exodus of European and other national workers.
“The uncertainty over future working and residency rights as well as currency exchange values, together with the ever-increasing senior management opportunities emerging in the rapidly expanding eastern European, central Asian and Chinese fresh produce industries, are drawing staff away from our shores at all levels.”
While Collier accepts that all sectors are raising their game in trying to attract the remaining workforce, he urges the fresh sector to respond in an “assertive and competitive” manner to ensure it attracts and retains “the very best” talent, rather than relying on people simply falling into the industry.
“The land-based sector needs to promote itself as a whole – as the food supply chain at large,” he suggests. “From the outside, the industry doesn’t look particularly attractive. It’s associated with being outdoors in muddy boots getting wet, but that is the perception of people who lack the right knowledge. It’s a big business that we can’t do without where incredible developments take place.”
The bottom line, says Collier, is that the food supply chain represents an exceptional career path. “You see a lot, learn a lot and meet a lot of people,” he notes. “Plus you can get well paid. The industry requires a lot of brainpower and a lot of innovative thinking. Somehow we’ve got to get across that message.”
The Fruiterers’ response
To help tackle the challenge, the Awards Council of the Fruiterers Company has resolved to focus on raising awareness among the UK student population. Starting with headline sponsoring The Fresh Careers Fair in London on March 8, the Fruiterers will actively encourage and support new entrants into the fresh produce and horticulture industry.
“The Fresh Careers Fair is a tremendous vehicle to encourage new entrants to consider our industry as their chosen career path,” Collier explains. “Its raison d’être complements the Fruiterers’ strategy. We want to encourage talent into the industry, and this is an opportunity for the Company to help promote and support that."
At the recruitment event on March 8, the Fruiterers will bring along a delegation of around 10 people, including liverymen and mentors who will engage in conversations with students and job seekers about the fresh produce industry. The delegation also will share information about the Fruiterers’ exciting, new competitions.
Incentives for students
Up for grabs is a one-week internship at a fresh food-related business that has yet to be determined. All expenses will be paid by the host business, including accommodation and travel. Entrants will need to submit to the Fruiterers a written pitch about themselves and their career aspirations within the fresh sector, including why they want to work in the industry, plus what they feel they have to offer.
On top of that, the Fruiterers is offering three £1,000 prizes for one Master’s student and two undergraduate students. As well as receiving the prize money to spend as they wish, the winners will be taken to visit an element of the fresh food supply chain, such as a grower, packing operation or logistics infrastructure to gain an insight into the inner workings of the industry.
Currently, the Fruiterers is in discussions with businesses from the sector to confirm sponsors for these prizes, and Collier invites other companies to get involved. “The competitions will be judged by leading academics and experts in the industry, together with the Company’s liverymen,” he says. “They will be high-level and very competitive. We’re hoping they will eke out some really talented people.”
Further recruitment efforts
Outside of The Fresh Careers Fair, the Fruiterers is looking into organising evening receptions at or day visits to UK universities, where students can listen to and talk with respected food business players, as a means of opening their eyes to a career path in the food sector. Collier suggests industry trade organisations could take a similar approach too.
And the recruitment effort could go even further, according to Collier . “One group alone can’t cover every angle, so the Fruiterers is addressing the knowledge gap among higher-education students and graduates,” he comments. “But one aspect we have noted is the lack of industry knowledge and activity at a school level. Pupils are choosing A-Level subjects and leaving school without knowing about the real opportunities within the food industry.”
Collier suggests that more could be done with schools located in fruit sectors or edible horticulture areas such as Kent, Herefordshire, Worcestershire or East Anglia. “Companies and organisations could go in to schools to talk with and show videos to Sixth Form (Key Stage 5) or even Year 11 (Key Stage 4) pupils,” he proposes. “Visits could also be arranged to production and packhouse operations.”
Additional industry awards
To extend its commitment to encouraging new talent, at the end of last year the Fruiterers also introduced an Under 30s Award that recognises a young person’s significant contribution to the fruit sector by advancing or improving the business in which they work.
The inaugural award in 2017 was won by Andrew Barclay, the pest monitoring and trials manager at UK soft fruit company Berry Gardens.
“This award gives newcomers to the industry time to make an impression as a new mover and shaker,” says Collier. “It’s a reward for those who have demonstrated their progression.”
The Fruiterers has a long record of offering awards and prizes to outstanding students at the UK’s leading horticultural colleges and agricultural departments of major universities. In addition, the organisation has funded workplace apprenticeships for agricultural and horticultural students. It also supports PhD research projects.
Currently, the Fruiterers is backing a PhD research project into the impact of long-term climate change on apple production, which is being investigated by the University of Reading at the National Fruit Collection site at Brogdale.
From time to time, the Fruiterers also presents or co-sponsors a prestigious Nuffield Farming Trust scholarship. This is offered to persons over the age of 30 years who wish to study a fruit-related subject that will ultimately make a valuable contribution and difference to the industry at large. Recent scholars include Richard Harrison, who is researching UK soft fruit production at East Malling Research.
Within the fruit sector itself, the Fruiterers presents three major triennial awards; the Ridley Medal for distinguished service to fruit growing, the Lewis Award for distinguished service to the marketing of fresh fruit, and the Matthew Mack Award for distinguished achievements in education, training and research in the fruit industry.
Furthermore, the Fruiterers offers a series of annual awards for outstanding contributions to the fruit sector, as well as sponsoring a number of trophies, medals and prizes presented at county shows and the National Fruit Show.