By Rachael Porter
Labour – sourcing and retaining skilled and motivated staff – has been a cause of anxiety in the agriculture sector, particularly poultry production, for many years. And Brexit is certainly focusing minds, as things are set to become much tougher in terms of sourcing staff.
With so many employees in the sector currently coming from Europe, the issue of staffing after 2019 is cause for increasing concern. This issue is particularly worrying for poultry processors, with around 90% of staff being non-British.
So what is the industry doing to inspire, recruit, train and retain the next generation of skilled staff for every part of the poultry production chain?
“Increasing awareness of the sector and making it an attractive option are the key start points,” says NFU chief poultry advisor Gary Ford.
“Agriculture doesn’t have a great image as far as young people are concerned and this is particularly the case with poultry production. So work here, to change perceptions and increase awareness of the sector and the jobs and career paths on offer will go a long way to help attracting more people into the poultry industry.”
He adds that the industry is doing quite a lot to attract people into the industry: “But we could be doing more and we certainly need to be doing more. The post- Brexit labour market is going to be tight and there’s also going to be fierce competition from other sectors that will also be hungry for labour.
“So anything that the industry can do to increase awareness of the career potential, prospects and job satisfaction that the sector has to offer will go a long way towards attracting talented people.”
He says that the introduction of an Agriculture GCSE – something mooted in Parliament earlier this year by Yorkshire-based MP Julian Sturdy – would be a start. “Learning about farming at this level will, undoubtedly, help to spark interest in all agricultural sectors. And, post Brexit, it will be increasingly important that consumers get behind British agriculture and some young people may then decide on a career path into the sector.”
Northern Ireland already offers a GCSE in agriculture. And Sturdy said that England should introduce a GCSE in agriculture ‘to give young people a ‘real opportunity’ as Brexit goes ahead.
Speaking during a Westminster Hall debate on the introduction of an agriculture GCSE, he said that farming would be at the forefront of unfolding technological development and scientific advancement. “And a GCSE-level option would be a useful way of alerting pupils to those opportunities.”
Introducing this GCSE, as well as greater industry involvement with schools, would increase awareness of the sector and its myriad of career opportunities among 10- to 16-year olds. And Gary Ford is heartened by the increasing numbers of students taking higher education courses in agriculture.
“But alerting these students and graduated to the opportunities in poultry is another challenge,” he says. “After talking to students taking agricultural courses, the majority are looking to work in the dairy or arable sectors.”
He says that much of this is down to familiarity: “There are more than 10,000 dairy farms in the UK, compared to just 3,500 poultry units. Fewer farms means that there’s less interest in poultry. And the skewed image of the industry – intensive, factory farms that use excessive amounts of antibiotics – can also put some students off. So, again, there’s work to be done on correcting this perception and increasing awareness of the opportunities that the poultry sector has to offer.”
NFU has been pivotal, along with several other industry partners, in developing the new poultry apprenticeships, through the Government’s ‘trailblazer’ process. These will build on the successful poultry passport scheme and continue to develop skills across the poultry supply chain.
The Poultry Worker standard is designed to be completed by farm operatives and hatchery workers, while the Poultry Technician standard is targeted at farm and assistant farm managers and hatchery managers. Both standards have been designed with core and optional elements to allow them to be suitable for all parts of the poultry agriculture supply chain – from rearing & breeding through egg production and hatching to grow out – and across all commercial bird species.
“The new scheme will bring standards and training up to date and make sure that we have a workforce that’s fit for the future,” said the British Poultry Council’s Shraddha Kaul. “These new apprenticeships will ensure that the sector is able to help employees to develop the relevant skills that are critical to all poultry business – big and small.”
The consultation asked poultry industry employers to read and comment upon the draft standards so that the proposed apprenticeship scheme met the needs of the industry.
Getting to this point has involved wide industry representation including more than a dozen employers supported by representatives of the British Poultry Council (BPC), NFU, LANTRA and Poultec.
The standards set out clear knowledge, skills and behavioural requirements that all apprentices, whatever their age and background, will be assessed on, recognised for and accredited against.
The new scheme is set for launch at this year’s Pig & Poultry Fair and its courses are currently still in the process of being approved, according to the BPC.
“The new standards are there to help the current poultry workforce to gain access to a range of opportunities through training and to add to their skills set. And we hope that the scheme will also attract some new blood into the industry,” adds Kaul.
The BPC also runs a scholarship scheme, which it says is also playing a key role in rejuvenating the sector’s image. “Recruiting, developing and retaining high-calibre talent will not only take our sector from strength to strength, but it will also bolster the heart of Britain’s food supply and secure it for generations to come.”
Kaul recently met with several young graduates from Harper Adams University and heard about the ways in which the British Poultry Council’s Scholarship Scheme has helped to change their lives.
“I heard a range of success stories that all illustrated how our businesses are ensuring that young entrants learn new skills, get to move across the supply chain and pursue opportunities that boost their productive potential.
“Helping deserving students to secure scholarship funding, as well as a paid placement yea,r is an excellent contribution towards building future skills that match the uptake of innovation and technology. But I do think that investing in young people is much more than providing financial support. For most young people, knowing that someone sees talent in you, values your skills and is willing to invest in you, can have a huge psychological impact that strengthens self-belief and encourages you to expand your horizons.”
Continuous training and development are so vital to the success of 2 Sisters that it appointed a dedicated team of five to oversee its apprenticeship scheme in summer 2017.
“Our aim is to offer everyone an opportunity to develop a career in the food industry,” says the company’s apprentice programme manager Janette Graham.
The team is dedicated to offering employees and new starters the chance to kick start their careers in the food industry. More than 150 employees are already signed up to training and the team at 2 Sisters expects to double this number before the end of its first year.
The company, which is Britain’s largest food manufacturer, already offers a wide range of apprenticeship schemes at different levels across its business – from food technologists and food operatives, to engineering and accountancy.
“The next generation of food entrepreneurs will have a fantastic opportunity to carve out a pathway and develop a stimulating and impressive career in the food industry,” says Graham.
“We can offer something for everybody from an advanced apprenticeship for new entrants into the food industry right through to an MBA course for our senior management team. The apprenticeships will enable us to showcase the food industry as a top career destination for young people and promote the roles within our business that have become more difficult to recruit.”
The 2 Sisters in-house apprenticeship team is about to launch its third level three course in management to add to the advanced food and drink process operator standard and food technology standard.
And, as well as the in-house scheme, the business also offers engineering using an external provider, degree apprenticeships in food industry technology, food operation management, a higher apprenticeship in accountancy and, more recently, an MBA in partnership with Aston University.
In Carlisle, for example, it has been training quality assurance operatives to step up to be food technologists by offering an advanced apprenticeship in food technology. The site has also encouraged food technologists to join a higher apprenticeship that leads to a degree in food industry technology, and one of the current quality assurance managers has enrolled on the manufacturing manager apprenticeship degree programme, with the University of Lincoln.
“Talented colleagues are vital to the long-term success of the company and this is why we are so committed to apprentice training within our business,” explains Graham.
The business’ vision is to attract the best candidates, develop world-class leaders and retain talent and highly skilled staff within the organisation. “Apprenticeships are key to how we engage all our employees and inspire them to do their best work every day. We are one team and everyone counts.”
Applied degree course launched following industry consultation
Hartpury University is now offering a BSc (Hons) Applied Agriculture degree at its Gloucestershire-based campus. It’s the result of consultation with key industry organisations, who said that many students leaving university with agriculture degrees had plenty of knowledge, but were not always able to apply what they had learned on farm. And student demand for such a course was also a factor in developing and introducing the degree.
The degree has specifically been designed to be ‘hands on’ and aims to equip young people with the skill set to enter the agricultural industry as the next generation of farm managers and consultants. As part of this, a large emphasis of the degree content is on practical skills gained during the final industry placement year of the four-year course
Programme manager Philip Watson says that the first intake for the course, in September 2017, exceeded the numbers expected. “And we saw a 50:50 split between applicants with an agricultural background and those without. That’s typical for all our courses. And we also have some students currently on this course who are interested in working in the poultry sector. It’s an industry that has avenues to lots of interesting and specialist jobs, including food safety and security, as well as technical management and engineering roles.”