UK employers must be fair, flexible and responsive to attract and retain talent

UK employers must be fair, flexible and responsive to attract and retain talent

Gill McShane

With the UK’s unemployment rate remaining at its lowest level since 1975 – fresh produce employers need to think, plan and execute their recruitment and HR strategies carefully to both attract and retain the right talent within what is described as ‘the best jobs market in decades.’ PBUK catches up with Martin Brown of food and fresh produce recruiter Henderson Brown for his top tips as the UK economy nears full employment. 

“In a full economy, those who want to work are working, so trying to attract talent into certain sectors is extremely difficult,” Brown explains. “But there is no shortage of work coming in to us. Our challenge is trying to find people to fill those roles.” 

Salaries: Be fair

To support that challenge, the first step for fresh produce employers is to look at the salaries being offered to both potential and existing employees.

“Ensure you are paying market rates,” urges Brown, adding that one of the biggest changes he’s witnessed in recruitment over the past 10 years is the “general drift upwards” in salaries.

“Very often we hear that so-and-so has resigned,” he continues. “They were being paid £30k [£30,000], but the market rate is £40k. Even if there’s only £30k in the budget, you won’t find anyone for that role; you need to go to £40k. We have that conversation with employers quite regularly.”

Equally, when it comes to existing employees, Brown advises companies to ensure you are paying a fair rate of pay.

“It’s very easy for people staying in the same position to be overlooked, to not get pay rises,” he comments. “But the market moves on. Be realistic. Make sure you are paying the right level.” 


Henderson Brown representatives networking at last year’s Fresh Careers Fair.

Benefits: be realistic 

In terms of benefits packages, Brown’s next move is to provide employees benefits that are “akin to the 21st Century.” 

“That means more than 20 days holiday a year,” exclaims Brown. “You also need to tailor your benefits package to your employees. Many businesses offer a smorgasbord of benefits. But what’s important to workers in their 20s is different to those in their 50s. 

“Younger staff will want gym memberships and reduced mobile phone packages, while older workers will be interested in healthcare and pensions. It’s about identifying the needs of your employees.”

Added to that, Brown encourages produce companies to provide a welcoming and comfortable working environment.

“Most of us spend 40 per cent of our awake week in an office,” he points out. “A nice environment is a way to retain people.”

Home working: Be flexible

Another major shift in the jobs market that produce employers should follow is the change in attitude towards working from home over the past decade.

“Some people in the produce industry won’t understand it, whereas the big food manufacturers are more comfortable with it,” Brown suggests. “It’s commonplace to offer one day a week working from home, particularly on a Friday.

“The truth is, geography has become less important. If you’re in a commercial role, you’ve got wi-fi, a laptop and a mobile phone. So, why do you need to be in an office 50 miles away? 

“Thirty years ago, you were at your desk because your desk was your business. Today, it’s your laptop. And maybe the next generation will be different still. Perhaps they will all be remotely based, and there will be no office.” 

Even those who might feel they need to be on-site to visually inspect certain products or orders can make use of modern technology, advises Brown.

“These days, you can use Skype or FaceTime to video-call your place of work to take commercial decisions,” he says. 

Brown adds that working from home also makes people happy.

“It empowers you,” he states. “As an employer, you are saying ‘I’m paying you by the results, not by the hour.’ “

On top of that, Brown notes the positive impact on efficiency when working from home.

“People say they get so much more done,” he comments. “One MD in produce told me he’s more effective in five hours at home than in eight hours at the office where there are distractions.” 

Nonetheless, Brown realises home working is not for everyone, as there is often a fine line to consider.

“I understand there are some people in your team whom you would trust implicitly to work from home, and others who you feel wouldn’t work quite as hard,” he states. 

Millennials: Be mindful

When it comes to your future workforce, fresh produce employers also need to be aware of the needs and desires of the next generations entering the workplace.

“One ‘Millennial’ said no to a finance role because she really wants to walk to work,” Brown points out. “Another said they don’t like driving. And someone else said they don’t want to work more than 34.5 hours a week. 

“We’re seeing a generational shift. Wellbeing is more important when it comes to what drives you, stimulates you and gives you the desire to perform.” 

Motivation: Be understanding 

Another of Brown’s top tips for retaining talent is to understand what motivates your employees.

“Certain things motivate certain people,” he explains. “Some people want to be patted on the back in the office; others prefer to remain quiet. For some, the money that goes into their bank account at the end of the month is what motivates them.

“Try to identify what your employees need.”

And while Brown is pleased that most produce companies have appropriate job specs and appraisal systems in place today, he suggests thinking out of the box for training.

“Evaluate your employees’ training needs and send them off to do bespoke packages,” he remarks. “Remember, there is so much you can do online, as well; there are many webinar courses.

“Someone told me about a really clever idea too. He had gathered the professors of management courses from universities around the world, such as Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and Sydney. 

“All employers had to do is to buy a block of 20 hours, then their employees could have a half-hour Skype chat to get advice from the ‘Head of Strategy at the London School of Economics,’ for instance. It’s big-boy stuff but something to think about.”

Modern technology: Be responsive

With technology advancing rapidly, fresh produce employers also need to think about recruiting workers with the right skills and offering roles that are attuned to the new digital age.

“New roles have been created in areas such as category and data insight, which focus on really understanding what consumers are looking for,” Brown points out.

“I interviewed a marketing director recently who said the future of marketing is not advertising, it’s data. It’s fascinating. ‘Big Brother’ is following you across the Internet, and it’ll become more commonplace. We’re already seeing it [the use of consumer data] in recruitment software.” 

Indeed, Brown expects a number of new employment roles will emerge in the future, while others will disappear; referring to the popular prediction by Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod in their ‘Shift Happens’ presentation that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today will end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. 

“Without question, there will be jobs created as artificial intelligence comes on further,” he predicts.

“In buying offices, junior buyer roles will disappear, and there will be fewer junior roles in terms of administration. The work will be done by software and/or artificial intelligence that can capture and manipulate data.

“In accountancy, the industry will need less finance people. For example, data will be captured in a factory through various means, and the speed at which information flows through the system will enable you to look at your efficiencies on a real-time basis. 

“Even in distribution, robots are moving pallets. The factories of the future will need significantly less people. And remember that those highly skilled people could be used elsewhere in the company.”

At a production level, Brown points out that many companies, even small businesses, have turned to automation and robotics to drive out unnecessary cost. 

“In the past, we haven’t had to automate because we haven’t needed to,” he remarks. “But the cheap European ‘labour tap’ has been turned off, for the time being, so we are seeing a lot more innovation.

“One of our clients used to have 70 staff, now that’s down to 40 people and their turnover has doubled. I think in the future, that 40 will become 20.”

Nonetheless, Brown believes it will be a while before we lose the human touch in many roles.

For instance, he suggests the produce sector always will need a human commercial interface and someone who is “savvy enough” to fulfil that role. However, he says negotiation will become more sophisticated as data becomes more readily available and accessible. 

“The need for IT and engineering skills are going to grow in the future,” Brown predicts. “In production, for example, the industry will need less people, but it’ll need more engineers to make sure those machines and robots function. 

“In the next 10 years, I think we’ll see 100 per cent automation. But it will be 50 more years before we have the machines to fix those robots.”

As such, Brown says the industry will need highly qualified engineers. 

“Engineering is moving on quite quickly, but we’ve not got enough engineers as a country to keep up with robotics in the next five years,” he warns. “Technology is coming on in leaps and bounds. It’s about the forward-looking businesses that grab technology and don’t resent it.

“It’s about being a smart business.”

  • Henderson Brown will be exhibiting at The Fresh Careers Fair 2019, on 13 March at the Business Design Centre in North London.
  • The Fresh Careers Fair is the annual recruitment event for the fresh produce, retail, foodservice and hospitality sectors. 
  • For more information, email: [email protected]



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