Bakery companies will be key beneficiaries of a new £1.7m government-funded scheme to improve food sector skills, including the creation of a new food engineering degree.

A number of leading bakery companies worked closely with Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, and the National Skills Academy to win the funding, announced last month. The money will cover around half the cost of the new skills programme with food and drink businesses committing to provide the same amount again in cash, time and in-kind support. A key focus of the scheme is to reduce the food industry’s reliance on migrant workers in favour of home-grown talent.

One of the initiatives will see the creation of a UK Centre of Excellence in Food Production Engineering and a new food engineering university programme, designed to provide a minimum of 40 graduate engineers a year. This will form part of the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF) Graduate Ambition programme to develop an industry-specific degree qualification.

Justine Fosh, director of Improve’s National Skills Academy for Food & Drink, which will deliver many of the projects, said engineering was an area that was particularly relevant to the baking industry. "Some of the biggest bakery firms will tell you that finding graduate engineers is a major problem, that graduates don’t have knowledge of the industry and often need to be retrained. Companies will design the degree programme themselves so it meets their specific needs," she said.

The engineering Centre of Excellence will be based at a single university with the first degree expected to begin in September 2013. The Employer Investment Fund administered by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, is providing funding.

In another move to plug the skills gap Angela Coleshill, FDF’s director of competitiveness, said it had pledged to double apprentice numbers in the food manufacturing sector to 4,000, by 2012. Two thousand apprentices currently work in the sector.