Produce companies have often bemoaned a lack of employment interest from young people and highlighted the difficulty in getting across a positive message about what the industry has to offer, but that seems to be changing as students are increasingly turning their attention to careers involving fruit and vegetables
For the past couple of decades at least businesses in our sector have lamented the paucity of careers advice pointing school-leavers and graduates in their direction. Gradually though the message seems to be getting through and young people are seeking out opportunities.
For some, their interest is primarily in food having been piqued by the plethora of cooking and food programmes on TV and a burgeoning restaurant culture in the UK, which has seen youngsters getting used to eating out from an earlier age than their parents. For others, it is a realisation that fresh produce can lead to a life of travel or simply the feel-good factor of bringing healthy nutritious products to people’s plates.
In an effort to bridge the gap between food-industry employers and job-seekers, the inaugural Fresh Careers Fair (FCF) held at the The Kia Oval in London last week, was the first recruitment event ever aimed specifically at young people looking for a career involving fruit and vegetables.
It showcased the dynamic world of fruit and vegetables and gave students and school-leavers a fresh perspective on the produce industry, and the wide array of jobs available across the production, foodservice, retail, wholesale, culinary, catering, hospitality, horticulture and agriculture sectors.
And importantly, the fair also provided a new opportunity for the fresh fruit and vegetable sectors to highlight the diversity and career potential they hold and how they can appeal to young job-seekers.
Furthermore, it was unique in that it also targeted catering and hospitality students looking to begin or further their career with leading foodservice suppliers, contract caterers, hotels and restaurant chains.
Tommy Leighton, managing director of the fair, welcomed more than 200 young people, some studying in the UK from countries including Italy, Germany, India, the US, Indonesia, Poland and China to the event.
He says: “For me, the attitude of the youngsters in the room was extremely refreshing. Many were not studying subjects that would at first point to a career in produce, but their business, IT, science and particularly linguistic backgrounds made them a perfect fit for what they now recognise as an industry that involves many more facets than being a grower – even if you are a grower!”
Young people leaving education and entering the world of work in this digital age are also doing their homework on the companies they would like to work for. Online research and is quick and easy and most of those at the FCF had made notes on those firms exhibiting that they wanted to see and had prepared a host of questions.
“We’ve heard of several of the attendees gaining interviews, being offered internships, part-time and fulltime opportunities with the companies who were there,” says organiser Leighton.
A key feature of the fair that proved popular with students were the 10-minute consultations with the so-called ‘Produce Dragons’. Twenty-five students took the opportunity to face the Dragons and give themselves a chance of winning an iPad mini.
Dragons nurseryman and Horticulture Innovation Partnership board member Will Sibley, recruitment consultant Max MacGillivray of Redfox and fresh-produce strategist and consultant Tony Ganio listened to each student present themselves for two minutes before giving guidance and advice on interview techniques and workplace skills.
“It was a delight to take part as one of the dragons,” says Sibley who is also a trustee of the National Fruit Collections Trust. “We were so impressed with the quality of the students we have seen. It was a joy to see these young people so enthusiastic and wanting to take on a role in our industry.”
The eventual winner was Anna Koessel who is studying for an MSc in International Business at Leeds University. “I am really interested in food,” she explains. “I come from a family involved in the hospitality business and I have worked on fruit farms in Australia. I really feel like this is a sector that I could get into.
“At the Fresh Careers Fair I have talked to Wealmoor, G’s and Total Produce and I will definitely be sending out my CV and looking more into their company profiles. This has been a very useful experience and the Produce Dragons really help you reflect on your interview skills.”
It can certainly be overwhelming making career decisions and facing the prospect of interviews for the first time. Hearing about positive experiences clearly helps and receiving advice, such as that dispensed by the Dragons can be a real boost.
Keynote speaker Dr David Hughes, Emeritus Professor of Food Marketing at Imperial College London and Visiting Professor at the Royal Agricultural University addressed students in a keynote speech at lunchtime during the FCF. In an engaging address he told students about his own fresh-produce career in an exciting industry that has seen him live and work in four different continents as well as outlining the scale of the challenges and opportunities the sector faces.
Dr Hughes advises young people to “pick an industry that makes you smile”, explaining that his chosen sector has “special characteristics” as well as “harsh realities”.
He believes having a personal development plan is key and advises those starting out to “make a pact” and “pick an industry that will invest in you, and you in them”.
The range of educational establishments that are starting to communicate the possibilities of a fresh-produce career is also growing and it is not just the well-known, land-based seats of learning such as Writtle College, Harper Adams University and MidKent College that turns out leavers keen to forge a career in our sector.
Students at Leiths School of Food & Wine and Le Cordon Bleu came to fair and there was huge interest from business students at the University of Leeds as well as students from Warwick Business School and the London School of Economics.
“The FCF has really opened my eyes to what the world of fresh produce has to offer,” says Edward Gallaway, who is studying international business at Leeds. “I feel totally inspired and excited about the opportunities that this fair has presented.”
Students met management, staff and HR representatives from a broad base of companies including Total Produce, BerryWorld, G’s, Richard Hochfeld, Freshtime, New Covent Garden Market and Wealmoor who were all keen to meet the fresh new faces that will drive their businesses forward, and to promote the varied career opportunities within their organisations.
Contract catering giant Elior ran a design-the-truffle for student delegates from its booth. Levy Restaurants, the market leader in the sport, leisure, arena, conference and hospitality sectors in the UK, sent recruitment teams from Chelsea FC and the O2, who were on hand to meet students and tell them all about a wide set of opportunities across their portfolio.
Cook’s Delights, a large supplier to some 3,000 Chinese restaurants in the UK, was present to meet students interested in pursuing a career in the catering industry. London Marriott Hotels was well represented by recruiters from its network of luxury London properties, eager to meet the new faces of the hospitality industry.
There was also plenty of representation from organisations offering tailored further education opportunities too. Management Development Services Ltd (MDS Ltd.) gave an insight into its accelerated management training for graduates entering into the fresh food, produce and arable industry, while The Food Advanced Training Partnership promoted its bespoke training programmes designed specifically for food industry professionals and Hadlow College was on hand to talk through its bespoke apprenticeship programmes for young people entering the industry.
Delegates also had the chance to learn about new openings at Prophet, the world-leading designer of supply-chain software for the perishables industry. Henderson Brown and MorePeople recruitment agencies were also on hand to give invaluable advice and a helping hand for people making their way into the fresh produce industry.
Sarah Calcutt, founding partner of Partners in Produce and organiser of the Worshipful Company of Fruiterers exhibition stand said: “The room was full of bright minds engaging with the fresh produce industry and I think some great connections were made and also a lot of very useful information exchanged. I’m already looking forward to the next one!”
If you are interested in taking part in the next Fresh Careers Fair whether as an exhibitor, a student, or an educational establishment please contact event manager Emma Grant.