Ian Wright, director general of the Food & Drink Federation, on the skills shortage facing bakeries and the wider food and drink industry

Last month, the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) launched a Grant Thornton study of the key productivity growth areas for the food and drink industry. One focus for the report was the long-standing skills shortage the industry has faced for many years.

That shortage means a looming skills gap, driven by an ageing workforce, with more than 15,000 workers a year now leaving the industry. So we must attract 140,000 new recruits to the industry by 2024. When coupled with the uncertainty around the future of our EU employees, who make up a third of our workforce, we face a potential skills and labour crisis.

The report examines why we struggle to attract talent. Skilled employees fail to recognise the food and drink industry as high-tech, choosing other sectors such as pharmaceutical and aerospace. There is also a perception that the industry is low-skilled and poorly paid. Both are massively untrue. There are a wide variety of different roles at all skill and salary levels in food and drink, with low-skilled work making up only a small fraction of those.

The findings reveal there are 1,900 bakery companies across the UK. Yet their geographic dispersion, which provides jobs in every region of our nation, works against the industry when it comes to educational provision. Other manufacturing industries are highly concentrated, meaning educational institutes in those regions are able to cater more specifically to skills needs.

Yet our industry remains resilient and versatile. Greater automated production, with investment in technologies and people, will help change perceptions. Investing in highly skilled workers – be  they operators of automated technologies or producers of fine artisanal goods – will also support future growth.

To deliver this, we need the full backing of government. With Brexit negotiations already under way, government must provide assurances for our current EU workforce and allow the sector access to workers once we’ve left the EU. 

The bakery sector is arguably a perfect example of the great range of roles available in our industry – be it in the production of hand-crafted patisserie products or the engineering roles needed at large manufacturing plants.

The skills challenge we face is complex. But if we can deliver access to a highly skilled and motivated workforce for the future, we can build a bright and prosperous future for everyone in food and drink.