Kitchen synch

What do you get when you cross an ex-coalminer with a cook-in sauce? Not much, according to East Midland food industry employers who are whipping up a scheme to combat a local skills mismatch. By Stephanie Sparrow

Like many areas of Britain, the East Midlands is re-inventing itself. Following the dethronement of King Coal and the twilight years of the textile trade, it is now aiming to become the kitchen of Britain.

The food-manufacturing sector is worth £4bn to the region and employs more than 55,000 people. Employers range from enduring major names such as Solway Foods – one of the UK’s major suppliers of fresh salads and sandwiches – to burgeoning SMEs such as Original Eastern, a producer of hand-baked ethnic snacks whose workforce is growing from 15 employees to 40 this year.

Fast-paced industry

Yet there is a danger the region’s skills are lagging behind this growth. Research from an East Midlands Skills Summit backed by New Deal shows that 64 per cent of jobseekers aged between 18 and 24 have no qualifications. The fast pace of the industry means employers need to recruit and place staff quickly, but they sometimes find the new workers do not have the aptitude nor the attitude to come up with the most basic career ingredient – the Basic Food Hygiene Certificate.

Employers are stepping in to bridge the gap with the launch of a skills programme called Passport to Food. The initiative will be funded by the East Midlands Regional Development Agency to the tune of £180,000.

Those who will benefit are already members of the Food and Drink Forum, a regional employer group pulled together from across the spectrum by founder and manager Keith Taylor. Taylor notched up 25 years with Northern Foods followed by secondment to the Prince’s Youth Business Trust before being inspired to set up the forum and pinpoint the training and recruitment needs.

"There is a lack of understanding about the industry and the different jobs available, and consequently many people do not see it as an attractive option," he says.

Agencies including Tecs and local authorities have identified the importance of food manufacture as an economic lifeline, particularly to former mining towns such as Worksop, yet there are concerns that the workforce cannot adapt.

"We recruit ex-miners but this means that they have to change their mindset," says Glen Howard, site training co-ordinator at Van Den Bergh Foods, part of Unilever, which employs over 500 people around Worksop making high-profile brands such as Ragu sauces.

"There are different demands and exacting high standards and the pace is quicker," says Howard. As a forum member he expects to use the Passport, which will be a document verifying a job applicant’s skill areas and attitudes, as evidence of competencies. "We recruit to a standard and it is about employing the right person. We then train them to our requirements," he says.

Major impact

The beauty of the programme is that it has been designed by employers and is based on research conducted by the Food and Drink Forum, according to programme manager Justin Leckie.

"It will target three main areas where employers believe training will have a major impact on productivity and growth – basic training for people entering the industry, building core skills of the existing workforce and strengthening managerial competencies," he says.

The Passport to Food limited company will run different levels of courses: a Readiness to Work programme, and an Effective Food Manager programme, and is hoping to become an accredited centre as an NEBS provider of management training. There is also an initiative to liaise with schools in order to identify the perceptions and needs of teachers, parents and pupils.

Pilot programmes are currently under way. The first, in February, was a two-day course testing Readiness to Work and looked at basic training for newcomers.

Participants, mainly registered unemployed, who responded to newspaper advertisements, were chosen on the basis of the competencies they displayed. They took part in interactive courses focusing on hygiene and health and safety issues and listened to speakers from a local college and Van Den Bergh foods. This was followed by a factory tour of Moon Scotts Bakery, where the course members were allowed to ice and take home cakes they had followed through the manufacturing process. At the same time, Moon Scotts was weighing up the participants and is likely to recruit two of them.

At Solway Foods, technical manager Jo Quinn has been involved in Food and Drink Forum for 16 months. She believes her company will benefit from the Passport to Food programme.

"We will get a ready-educated labour pool," she says. "People will be given a grounding in the food industry which makes screening easier."

Career opportunity

Solway feels it has had the right input into the format of the scheme. "We had an opportunity to say what we want in an operative, such as good timekeeping, enthusiasm for the industry, showing a hygienic disposition," Quinn says.

She is also looking forward to the next stages in the Passport as it looks at management development. "The food industry should be promoted as a career opportunity," she says.

Food and Drink NTO manager Frances Feeney says she welcomes the scheme and its attempts to raise the profile of the industry. "We know everybody is finding it hard to recruit good quality people," she says. "The way the industry is moving, we need people with good core skills that can be developed."

She welcomes the Passport to Food initiative because it is a "genuine employer initiative" and sees the Readiness to Work programme as "a positive move".

Feeney and Taylor are hoping to forge links between Passport to Food and the NTO over matching NVQ Level 3 for supervisors with the Passport’s Effective Food Manager.


If you can’t stand the heat

Food manufacture, according to government statistics, employs 550,000 people directly nationwide and is valued at £60bn a year. The sector is the fastest growing in Europe. Yet many feel it remains a poor relation in basic skills funding and employment schemes.

"There are no skilled young people coming through," says Madi Sharma, the founder of Original Eastern Foods. Sharma, who represents SMEs on New Deal and is a keen supporter of the Passport to Food, believes the New Deal and Gateway programmes should include the Basic Food Hygiene Certificate, to encourage people to understand what the industry is about.

There is also a sense of mismatch between employers’ needs and the education curriculum. For example, schools have to offer GCSE in Food Technology and teachers who previously worked on domestic science and nutrition courses are expected to give an insight into an industry where they have little experience.

Belinda Willison, a teacher at Elizabethan High, Retford, says, "The schools course isn’t about craft skills, yet when employers interview former pupils they ask if they have prepared food or baked. Employers are also asking schools to train in the Basic Food Hygiene certificate yet we can’t afford the £8 per pupil."

Money isn’t the only problem, says Willison. "It is hard to initiate contacts for factory visits – there isn’t time in the teaching day," she says.

It is for these reasons that Willison welcomes the Passport to Food and hopes that it will help build bridges between employers and schools.

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