UK food and drink companies must work together to improve skills and employment in the sector, says Justin King

As my time as president of the IGD comes to an end, I am grateful that it has helped me gain a clearer view of the UK's food and grocery sector.

There can be no doubt that the sector has endured a testing time over the past two years. The economic climate and ensuing uncertainty have posed extraordinary challenges to the world economy let alone ours.

Since the beginning of 2009, the UK has seen a 7.3% growth in food and drink manufacturing output and an 11.4% increase in exports. In the two years to March 2011, Sainsbury's growth plans will create 13,000 jobs and other retailers have made similar commitments, helping mitigate the impact of job losses from other industries. All of this means that, despite the depth of the recession, the UK food and drink industry has shown itself to be a world leader in the management of manufacturing and retailing.

But it is vital that we do not rest on our laurels. To maintain the industry's position in a global marketplace, and to help the UK economy return to full strength, we need to invest in skills. Food is one of the UK's largest and most strategically important industries, providing 3.6 million jobs, so we have to accept our responsibility for developing the next generation of talent.

This sense of responsibility is why 25 of the UK's leading food and grocery companies have recently come together to sign an Employability Pledge, demonstrating their commitment to improving skills and providing employment.

This is the big society in action and by raising awareness of career opportunities we will help raise the profile of our industry. Quietly helping to develop the nation's skills isn't enough; we need to shout about our achievements. The sector might be a world leader but it needs to do more to sell itself and attract the best school leavers and graduates, not just from the UK but from the wider world.

We need to convince young people that a career in Britain's food industry is just as exciting as one spent in banking, law or technology. $1trillion of food is traded around the world each year and, if we nurture and develop our talent correctly, British companies will be in a prime position to spearhead the industry for years to come.

We know, however, that we cannot reach our goals alone. We will be utilising work experience programmes and graduate placements as well as working with schools and other organisations.

As support for the pledge grows I hope other companies investing in skills and creating opportunities sign up. Grocery retailers and manufacturers exist within every community in UK, giving the industry unprecedented scope to make a difference.

There can be no doubt that the UK food and grocery sector is one of the most competitive in the world, and this competitiveness has helped foster a period of unprecedented growth and success, at the same time providing consumers with quality, affordable food. The pledge shows a collective will to put this everyday rivalry to one side to work together for the good of the sector and the wider economy.

I know incoming president Charles Wilson will continue to drive this initiative and I look forward to working with him to help deliver these goals.

Justin King is outgoing president of IGD and chief executive of Sainsbury's.