Training in the food and drink industry should be more demand-targeted and collaborative, says Paul Wilkinson

Gazing into a crystal ball is always dangerous in the food and drink industry, where the sudden, rapid nature of change has a tendency to make yesterday’s golden goose look like tomorrow’s dead duck.

Five years ago, I was involved in drawing up a vision for how skills and training could help the food and drink industry reach a new level of world-class achievement.

The business plan for what became Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, spelt out how the industry could replace a disjointed, mish-mash approach to skills and training with a unified, employer-led, cross-sector vision. It described the importance of engaging all employers in the skills debate so they would recognise the value of developing a multi-skilled, modern workforce. It outlined how the creation of a demand-led training and qualifications system that allocated public funds based on real business needs would drive performance and success in the global market.

Since then Improve has delivered the Sector Skills Agreement (SSA), the food and drink industry’s first ever cross-sector strategy for encouraging use of talent and skills for success. Its reforms made National and Scottish Vocational Qualifications and Apprenticeships more flexible, more relevant and easier to access, driving up participant numbers. Our National Skills Academy for Food and Drink Manufacturing has brought together employers, training professionals and specialists from across the industry to create a nationwide training resource that can respond to the needs of individual companies.

So, where next? There certainly remain unfulfilled ambitions - the industry is still not exactly a destination of choice for bright young people leaving university. And in the grip of recession, it is pertinent to ask whether the skills agenda, heralded in the Leitch Report in a time of optimism and plenty, is still relevant.

There is a school of thought that says the current economic climate only serves to underline the importance of a collaborative, demand-led approach to skills for the food and drink industry. As margins are squeezed, a food company’s greatest resource becomes its staff as, with the appropriate skills, they can drive efficiency and productivity.

Increasing collaboration on skills across the supply chain will form a key part of Improve and the NSA strategy over the next five years. We will also continue to increase the flexibility of qualifications so they can be targeted to specific roles. Improve is developing a new Food and Drink Qualification that will ultimately allow employers to have their own in-house training accredited as part of a recognised qualification, increasing cross-sector compatibility, opening up progression routes and encouraging staff to train more.

Another priority will be to put pressure on the government to shift public funding away from full qualifications to short courses and units within qualifications. This will give companies access to the resources to get staff up to speed in required skills quickly. In recession, this will give companies the confidence to respond to mounting pressures by investing in staff.

Paul Wilkinson is chairman of Big Bear and Produce World, and of Improve and the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink Manufacturing.