"Everybody should stop moaning about bakery skills shortages and learn to love the new skills framework." This is not what Improve’s CEO Jack Matthews said of the new ’employer-led’ qualifications, but he might have done in a more private moment than speaking at last week’s launch of the new framework.

"It’s about engendering the recognition that it’s a demand-led agenda - led by the employers." That, he did say.

Speaking to British Baker at the sector skills council’s conference, held at Improve’s base at York University, Matthews said the qualifications have been streamlined to eliminate thorny issues such as duplication of learning. It also offers a modular ’plug and play’ skills framework, applicable across the whole food and drink industry, with specific bakery modules.

Meanwhile, momentum is building to plug the gap in training provision, with the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for bakery, which should culminate on 30 October at Bakers’ Hall, London, where the issue is set to dominate an Improve-led bakery training conference. This would see the baking industry come up to speed with the meat and fish industries, which already have centres of excellence.

Matthews said a new centre could be up and running within a year if the idea were embraced by the baking industry. "We can get that development process under way, assessed and accredited, and a centre set up within a year - if there is the will to do it," he said.

national skills academy

The National Skills Academy is the training division of Improve, funded by The Learning & Skills Council. The existing centres of excellence are independent providers, with an emphasis on engaging with employers, he added.

"We have been working with a number of bakery companies - Warburtons to name but one - and they are beginning to recognise what skills can actually do for their organisation, for shareholders and their performance in the marketplace, as well as for the individual. The baking industry is going to continue to change in terms of plant size and complexity. On the craft bakery side, we know what issues they have with finding good bakery apprenticeships, and locations for bakery apprenticeships can actually be delivered."

The flexibility of the qualifications will allow bakery employers to plan using their people better, he believes. "If you want to move on from a Level 2 to a Level 3, you can add whatever units you want, because the credits are all equalised and accessible. When the provider sees the demand starting to build for these tailored qualifications, they will recognise that’s where they have to go."

Baking industry figures gave their backing to the framework at the event. British Bakels MD Paul Morrow said that firms are now realising that engaging skills more fully into their business structure adds value to the bottom line. "If we look at the commonality of food manufacture, rather than at the very small sub-sectors of baking, craft baking or confectionery, then there are many themes in common - from health and safety, hygiene, through to process operators and management supervision.

"Whether it’s craft baking, bread or confectionery, or whether it’s craft fish processing or craft butchery, there’s still a scope for all those craft skills within the framework. We’re trying to build those foundation skills that are common to the whole food industry as well as the very narrow but important sector craft skills - in our case bakery."

British Bakels is recruiting senior level food scientists and training them in bakery craft skills. "It will take us a couple of years but it’s not impossible. The true craft skills are only a small part of the common skill set that our company employees will require."

He added that common complaints against embracing training - including fears that upskilled employees would jump ship to competitors, meaning someone else reaps the fruit of the investment, or a lack of time and/or money - are misplaced.

"If you haven’t got the time to train then you’re not going to be in business long-term. If you train your people, they’ll be motivated to stay - losing them to competitors is not a convincing reason not to train," he said.

This argument was echoed by Sylvia Halkerston, HR director of Macphie, which decimated the rampant staff turnover at the Glasgow Oakwood Foods Factory it acquired in 2000; this fell from 90% to less than 1% through a structured approach to training involving NVQs. "There’s a consensus today that there’s a direct correlation between training and development and the success of a business. Training produces a competent, confident workforce that enables us to compete globally," she said.

But will the baking industry embrace this new framework or is there still scepticism? "The baking industry is much more enlightened than some of them give themselves credit for! They will have to make an investment - which some in the industry have run from in the past - but they’re beginning to see that training gives a clear return on their investment."

wait and see stance

There was however a ’wait and see’ outlook on the mix and match flexibility of the qualifications from Arthur Rayer of the SAMB. "When you have hundreds of units, I’m not sure how you hang a qualification on a generic mix. I think you have to drive the industry a wee bit," he said.

But he welcomed the retention of the bakery element. "Although it’s a framework for food manufacturing, within it, there are still bakery roots. We were worried that bakery would be swamped by a generic qualification, but it’s not. We’re also happy with having the standards, but not necessarily attached to VQs. That means we can offer alternative qualifications where people want them."

The development of a genera- lised food manufacturing qualification to replace all the old qualifications in no way detracts from the role of bakers, insists Paul Wilkinson, chairman of Improve. "Clearly, bakers need to know how to bake, whether craft or plant. But it is a simplified, more clearly focused set of qualifications. And through the National Skills Academy it should be easier to access training."

Matthews added: "The critical element is that bakery employers feel something has been done that reflects their needs." n