By Kerry Maxwell, communications manager, British Poultry Council
I was up in Yorkshire visiting a broiler farm recently. Whilst the farm manager was showing me some of the new equipment they had installed on farm, conversation ended up leaning towards that of recruitment and retention, plus the role of innovation on farm and in industry more widely. Funnily enough, this was a week or so before the recommendations of the Independent Review of Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain were unveiled; the timing couldn’t have been any more apt.
Following these recommendations, our question is ultimately whether Government wants a poultry industry or not. A combination of a declining workforce and productivity stasis is lethal, not least with a cost of production crisis on our hands. There’s no shying away from a drop in output and overall stagnancy if a national industrial blueprint does not capture investment in agri skills whilst patching up holes in immigration, especially if self-sufficiency is Government’s objective for food and farming as part of the ‘green transition.’
Some sort of industrial strategy is going to go a long way in addressing the problems that underpin labour and skills – not Levelling Up (Round II), but an approach that gives businesses the tools to drive productivity themselves: loans, schemes, and inclusive training programmes that integrate businesses further into local economies and bolster local communities. That requires Government to engage with industry to identify both what changes are needed and how they can be delivered to shape prosperous national poultry meat supply chains.
My conversation with the farm manager up in Yorkshire made me realise the number of jobs is one thing and the nature of work is another, particularly since technological progress lacks linearity. It looks different as different points of the supply chain. Rather than wrestling with “how we recruit and retain,” it might be productive to try thinking about “who?” As everyone gets excited about automation as part of the ‘green transition,’ in a thriving green economy, who is work for?
Securing a pipeline of talent with purpose is fundamental to our productivity, and from there to a truly sustainable food system that feeds people, tackles social inequalities with quality, affordable food, and ensures a liveable climate for all. Poultry is half the meat the nation eats. How does the development of our industry ensure the best outcomes for our consumers and communities alike? How is technology informing skills profiles? What training needs do businesses have to honour? What’s the relationship between skills development and ensuring workers meet requirements?
These are huge questions, particularly for a sector that has relied on manual labour but recognises the opportunities technology brings. That recognition shows why the dialogue on labour and skills must be embedded alongside that of productivity and what we want UK food to achieve.