To coincide with National Apprenticeship Week Produce Business UK talks to a specialist recruiter and leading businesses about the issue of attracting the right people into the fresh produce industry through a variety of initiatives
While of course it’s good news that UK unemployment rates have fallen to a six-year low and the number of young people not in employment, education or training (NEETs) has dipped to pre-recession levels, but what does that really mean for recruitment in the fresh produce sector, and will the seemingly perennial recruitment conundrum in this industry will ever be solved?
For as long as this writer has been involved with this sector [20 years] we have been talking about how to try and attract more young people into the business and greater numbers of top-quality graduates. With unemployment and youth unemployment seemingly falling in the future it could get harder to bring people into this exciting and dynamic trade. To tackle that challenge, fresh produce businesses and specialist recruiters are doing more than ever before to bang the drum for produce.
Guy Moreton of recruitment company MorePeople specialises in the fresh produce, food and horticultural trades. He says: “Attracting young people continues to be a challenge and there is a feeling that as experienced people in the fresh sector leave the world of work, there is a lack of new talent coming in to take their place. This is creating a skills gap that is a very challenging environment for everyone.
“Young people often set their sights on moving away to big cities to work, rather than moving to rural areas where most UK food producers are situated. It’s a double challenge, as not only does the fresh sector have to promote the industry, it also has to promote rural living.”
What would certainly help is a shift in understanding of what is actually involved in working within the fresh sector.
“Many young people think only of the manual-labour aspects of fresh sector work, with a belief that the sector is not the route to a fulfilling career for them,” says Moreton. “They overlook the fact that many of these companies are large, sophisticated businesses with opportunities across all functions; finance, sales, marketing, IT and engineering, for example.”
However, recruiters such as MorePeople have found that once youngsters do join the industry, they often do very well. “This is a sector that recognises ability quickly and their efforts can receive high rewards at a relatively young age,” he says.
And there are a growing number of initiatives at all sorts of levels to change perceptions and attract young people into the industry. Freshtime UK, a fresh prepared produce and chilled foods supplier in Boston, Lincolnshire, has established firm links with local schools.
The company launched its Freshtime Fun Club last year and brought primary school pupils from the Boston West Academy in to visit its facility and learn about healthy eating as well as witness produce being grown on farms. The company also reinforced its relationship with the school by sponsoring the school’s netball kit.
Mark Newton, Freshtime UK’s managing director, explains: “Now we are working with sixth-form students too from Boston College and we took a stand at a recent job fair there. One thing that has come out of that is the plan to bring students on visits to Freshtime UK where we can show them the range of jobs in the food sector from commercial and manufacturing to technical roles.”
As well as the work of proactive companies such as Freshtime UK, other organisations are also catching on to the need to attract more people and communicate better. Moreton points to the FoodStart initiative from the Institute of Food Science & Technology’s (IFST) as an example.
“FoodStart is making great strides in making opportunities in the fresh sector more accessible,” he says. “For example, employers can post any food-related work experience placements on their website completely free of charge in order to attract talent. They’re also doing a great job of raising awareness of food sector jobs through alliances with ‘cool’ people in the industry such as Jamie Oliver.”
The cool factor appears to have been at play when it comes to apprenticeships too. Moreton reports that his business is noticing a greater interest in candidates becoming an apprentice.
“This may be following the success of Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice TV programme, changing the view of what it means to be an apprentice,” says Moreton. “…Today it’s seen as a more acceptable route from which you can build a promising career – with the added benefit of no university tuition fees or lingering student debt.”
Freshtime UK, for example, has recruited one apprentice to carry out a buying role at the company and the firm is looking at bringing in another apprentice in a different part of the business.
Meanwhile, at the Produce World Group, one of the UK’s largest vegetable growing and supply businesses, the company operates a ‘Tasty Jobs’ scheme to bring more people into the fresh produce sector.
Guy Thallon, group sustainability and research manager, says: “Tasty Jobs is an innovative welfare-to-work scheme designed to attract young job-hunters into food manufacturing. We have Tasty Jobs representatives across all of Produce World’s sites, with the Tasty Jobs team at Produce World Yaxley helping seven people get back into work, one of whom joined Produce World on a permanent basis at its Yaxley site.”
There could also be lessons to learn from other sectors. For example, amenity horticulture has long struggled with image problems and recruitment but the Homebase Garden Academy is starting to change this with a year-long scheme that provides candidates interested in a career in horticulture with a full-time job. This comes alongside practical training and visits to various suppliers as well as a Royal Horticultural Society qualification.
Looking ahead, MorePeople is hopeful of progress and has noticed that slowly its clients are starting to accept that there is a shortage of talent in the pipeline and that it is really acute in certain areas, such as technologists and agronomists. “Everyone wants to hire the ideal candidate; the ones that have a minimum of three years’ experience, but this is near impossible if they are new to the industry,” says Moreton.
“We are starting to see acceptance of this reality, with companies being more open-minded about a candidate’s background and recognising the transferable skills which they may have picked up from other industries. It is going to be really limiting – and unsustainable – if our clients only focus on taking food and agri-graduates from places such as the University of Reading and Harper Adams University.
“…There will only ever be a steady stream of fresh talent with experience if every year companies hire a new fresh crop and let them grow for three years. If you don’t plant the seeds today, there won’t be anything to pick later.”
Freshtime UK and Produce World have also teamed up with the University of Lincoln to develop their staff and future, as well as attract more young people into the industry. Read the full story from PBUK here.