UK food and drink manufacture remains stuck in a rut. Job vacancies are higher than in other manufacturing sectors, causing an estimated output loss of over £1.4bn that is significantly stunting sector growth.

There’s a 4.8% vacancy rate across UK food and drink manufacture. That figure is slightly down on Q1 levels of 5.9%, but the FDF’s State of the Industry report for Q2 nonetheless shows there is a big problem – bigger than general manufacturing (2.9%) and larger than the UK average (3.3%).

labour shortage is nothing new for manufacturing. Demand for workers has been high across the food and drink supply chain, including logistics and farming, for years. But what’s going to change and who should change it?

Some 1.44 million Brits aged 16 or over were unemployed in April to June, up on the previous quarter and 63,000 above pre-pandemic levels, the government’s latest labour market stats show. So, there are bodies to fill the vacancies, though it’s not always as simple as that.

People in the UK, for the most part, have shunned food and drink work. Even before Brexit, Brits shirked working in fields as well as taking up jobs in food processing plants. There are, of course, many basic assumptions about working in food and drink, such as it’s badly paid, hard work and offers unreasonable hours. Some assumptions are true, but likewise not all positions are mundane or laborious. As with any sector, there’s a breadth of disciplines and routes to consider. Not to mention experiences can vary depending on the company.

Stemming from Henry Dimbleby’s work

FDF reiterates the need for government to act on the 10 points from the Independent Review into Labour Shortages, with a response from Parliament due this autumn. The first of those points, which all stem from Henry Dimbleby’s work in 2019, along with the National Food Strategy, is to ‘Implement a Comprehensive Strategy to Enhance Sector Attractiveness’.

A large part of this would be to change public perception about food and drink industry careers by raising awareness of opportunities within the sector. “Such a campaign must highlight the importance of sector jobs at all levels, which promote and improve environmental sustainability and contribute to the government’s levelling up and green agendas,” said the review.

Greater industry and government collaboration; a review of school curriculums to support skills development within the industry; pay, staff benefits as well as the regulation of migrant worker schemes; and improving the flexibility of working for harder-to-reach and disengaged talent also form part of point one.

But this is a growing problem and one that government has been warned of in many ways over the years. So why would it take constructive action now?

The hospitality sector experienced – and still is, to some extent – similar issues. The industry was vastly understaffed and underskilled. Just like food manufacture, it was a growing problem that worsened during Brexit and more still following the pandemic.

A vibrant and colourful campaign delivered results

Tired of its gripes going unheard, hospitality joined forces and launched last year something never before seen. Hospitality Rising.

A vibrant, colourful and impactful campaign backed by industry celebrities that made restaurant and pub jobs appealing yielded – to date – 67.5 million digital impressions, over 542,000 job views and 135,265 job applications.

Its reach was wide and, importantly, educational. So much so, the appeal to work in hospitality rose 14%. More than one in three UK adults now consider working in hospitality as a positive, up from one fifth in 2022.

Driving that was the industry pulling together to tell the truth about itself, including the reality of hours, pay and job satisfaction. It lifted the veil on hospitality and dispelled myths that parents told their children: “Don’t work in a pub, it’s a dead-end job.”

Food and drink must take a leaf out of hospitality’s book, come together and take ownership of its story. As the largest manufacturing sector – bigger than automotive and aerospace combined – it has the collective heft to make change.