With better co-operation, the industry can help develop a gold standard of excellence in training, says Jack Matthews

The Food and Grocery Industry Skills and Employment Summit in London this week reaffirmed how deep the belief in investing in people and skills now runs in the food and drink industry.

Delegates openly used a word that was once only whispered by industry insiders in hushed tones, usually in private co-operation.

I have long believed the industry should do more to co-operate on skills and employment. Given the historically tempestuous nature of relationships between producers, processors and retailers, these developments are a milestone.

The whole industry faces critical challenges in the decade ahead. In an economy still struggling to shrug off recession, food and drink companies face a battle to stay ahead of global competitors in both innovation and value. There is a race to lead in technological advances, and everyone is under pressure to reduce impacts on the environment.

From the multiples right down to the smallest agribusiness, all these factors have implications for the way we recruit, train and develop people.

All businesses of all sizes need people with the skills to drive efficiency and productivity, who can lead and manage businesses made more complex and sophisticated through competition, consolidation and diversification.

We need people with the higher technical skills to add value and drive innovation, and people with the broad range of skills needed to improve sustainability and food security.

We also need to make the whole industry a destination of choice for the very brightest new recruits.

In practical terms, I would like to see the development of a 'food supply chain cluster' that would offer a single, united front on skills issues. This would bring all the different sector skills councils that have an interest in food together with Improve.

The outcome, for the first time, would be the comprehensive coverage and delivery of skills for all food and drink supply chain employers, as well as a unified, cohesive vision for developing the workforce. This would allow closer working with trade associations and professional bodies such as IGD and the FDF and would help to raise the profile of the industries along the food supply chain as excellent employers with first-class opportunities.

By agreeing and promoting universal standards in areas such as management and leadership, sustainability, food safety and hygiene, we can develop bespoke training to suit various needs but that is based on a common currency of knowledge and ability. This will help streamline operations and create a more flexible, multiskilled workforce.

I would challenge everyone to work together to develop a gold standard of excellence in training and consider delivering this through our National Skills Academies.
This would help all businesses, SMEs in particular, to take up flexible, accessible training that delivers clear business benefits by developing their workforce, raising productivity and/or driving down costs.

Finally, through adopting a common voice on skills, we will be able to secure the influence and 'clout' needed to make government and its agencies listen, and therefore position the food supply chain where it should be in the priority list of key sectors earmarked for special attention and support for growth.

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