Student programme shines light on key industry need

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The only downside for me of being involved in the organisation of an event like the London Produce Show and Conference is that I can’t take part in every single part of it.

The same applies to anyone who attended of course, but having been involved in most things as we stitched together our targeted content, it is a little frustrating afterwards to have only second-hand feedback (however good it is) on which to base my memories of big elements of the event.

We have several programmes that help to differentiate our offer from other shows, in my opinion, and one of those that will have a significant long-term impact on the industry is our student programme – for which I personally can claim little credit. 

With the extremely generous help of Andrew Sharp and Sarah Calcutt, the LPS team gathered together a group of around 40 students from UK and US ag/business universities, as well as six apprentices from Sainsbury’s fresh produce specific trainee scheme and another group of outstanding culinary students from Westminster Kingsway.

As we did last year, we provided them with travel, rooms at the hotel and free and full access to the entire show, from the gala cocktail reception on the Wednesday evening through to a bespoke tour to East Malling Research on Friday morning.

The students were all invited to the thought leaders breakfast panel on the main show day and then, after a quick turnaround of the venue’s ballroom, took part in a fantastic morning session during which they heard from a series of people who have made careers in fresh produce.

Where else can they get that level of varied expert insight into a sector that is high on their list of preferred career destinations?  

This isn’t a purely altruistic venture as I’m sure you recognise. As a company that serves the fresh produce industry in the UK and around the world, it’s in our interest as well as yours to ensure that there is another generation of well-qualified leaders coming into our midst. None of them are necessarily nailed-on to join the fresh produce throng; they have plenty of choice across agriculture and there is a whole raft of opportunity outside of our walls.

Another to offer his precious time at the show was recruitment specialist Guy Moreton, of MorePeople, and in this article in March, he and others again outlined the challenges fresh produce firms face in attracting, then retaining bright young graduates. What the article also illustrated though is that the industry has woken to the challenge in recent times and where there was darkness when this subject was raised 15-20 years ago, there are now plenty of shards of light breaking through.

There is so much more to be done. Still, the vast majority of school leavers in this country have little or no understanding of fruit and vegetables, let alone the potential to have a career in one of the most exciting industry’s imaginable. There is still a high proportion of students who go into degree courses of the kind being undertaken by our LPS attendees and then choose to pursue their life goals outside of this sector. And I think it’s more than fair to say that there still remains a painful disconnect between the industry and the educational institutions that are painstakingly looking to fill the boardrooms of 2025 and beyond.

If your firm isn’t hooked into one of the colleges / universities in this country, do you ever ask yourself why not? We all have to accept at some stage that, as the world revolves around us, so we need to refresh our skills base, adapt our mindset and fine-tune our approach to suit the here and now, not the commercial environment of 5 or 10 years ago.

There is a lot to be said for experience and historical success, but neither counts for much if you lose touch with the reality of today. We’ll continue with our attempts to introduce more of tomorrow’s leaders to this industry – I think the least we should all do in our time in the fresh produce sphere is to create a base that allows our successors a chance to thrive as we have.

• As a footnote, the London Produce Show and Conference earlier this month was truly the most enjoyable industry event I have ever been to in the UK.

Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on why things work, but for what it’s worth, I think the palpable buzz of excitement at the LPS this year was a result of a great and larger mix of exhibitors and visitors, the way the 1665 people in the room networked and engaged so brilliantly, and an ability I haven’t yet found in any other sector or country to turn a trade gathering into what feels like a celebration of something much more.

The feedback has been tremendously positive and the amount of business being done on the show floor and around the venue just reaffirmed again the reasons we brought the show to London.

I look forward to doing it all again with you in 2016!

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