The dairy industry has an image problem. Let’s face it, it’s just not sexy to don a boiler suit and hairnet and get up close and personal with a cow. Children don’t often say “I want to be a dairy farmer”. Instead, it’s a ballerina, a doctor, a fireman or perhaps nowadays a YouTube sensation. But with Brexit looming and threatening to bring a labour shortage with it, dairy needs to get sexy - and fast

Of the 19,000 people working on British dairy farms, around 5-7,000 are paid labour rather than family labour, and of those a third tend to come from Eastern Europe, according to a NFU consultation published in December. That’s a big gap to fill post-Brexit, and its only the tip of the iceberg. Around 80,000 people work across the UK dairy sector as a whole, and factories are just as uninspiring to young Brits as farms. “The dairy sector is particularly reliant on workers from outside the UK,” says the NFU. “However, the impact of Brexit will be felt further than just on-farm as much of the wider dairy supply chain consists of non-UK labour.”

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It’s not just a dairy problem either. The total food and drink industry will need around 130,000 new recruits by 2024 in order to meet the skills needed and plug the age and migration gap, according to FDF’s Unlocking Talent report from 2016. And that doesn’t include the number of people needed to fill jobs across Britain’s other industries, which will also be competing for the best talent. EU workers constitute more than 20% of the labour force in 18 specialist industries, according to a GMB study of ONS figures.

So how can the industry tackle the challenge ahead? And what strategies are dairy companies using to make sure they can attract the best talent?

This isn’t the first time the dairy industry has faced a “shocking” labour crisis, according to Justine Fosh, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink (NSAFD). Things were just as bad 10 years ago, she claims, when an ageing population and lack of available training schemes meant there simply weren’t enough people joining the industry to make it sustainable.

In 2008, the industry woke up to the crisis, with six major dairy companies including Arla, First Milk, Müller and Dairy Crest joining forces with the NSAFD and Dairy UK to create Project Eden. Recognising that part of the problem was the lack of any formal or structured training for dairy industry recruits, the partnership launched two new training schemes for dairy industry employees over the following years - dairy technology and dairy engineering. Both courses are now “market leading”, according to Fosh. They are held at Reaseheath College, which benefitted from a £2.5m extension and upgrade to its facilities as part of the initiative.

Since then, plenty more dairy-specific training schemes have been rolled out, including an Entrepreneurs in Dairying programme organised by the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers in collaboration with the Andersons Centre, AHDB Dairy and the NFU. Now in its fourth year, more than 130 applicants have completed the course. 

“The hours are challenging, as is the type of work, and there’s a perception of the job that’s not very sexy.”

Harper Adams also launched an Access to Agriculture course in December, which aims to give potential recruits with a non-farming background the chance to gain experience working in the agricultural sector. Dairy Pro, the professional development register for the industry managed by AHDB, now has around 130 training partners registering events with it five years after launch.

But while the lack of industry-specific training programmes has been addressed, getting enough people to take the courses is still a challenge. “While the programmes are really good and are better than anything that’s been there before, I think the market for young people is very competitive,” says Fosh.

Food and farming faces a “whole load” of unique challenges when it comes to convincing youngsters to eschew other industries and sign up, says Richard Clothier, managing director at Wyke Farms. “The hours are challenging, as is the type of work, and there’s a perception of the job that’s not very sexy.”

There is also a lack of education about the opportunities available, he says. Most people perceive food businesses as being just a packing line, which misses out the marketing, sales, management and technical opportunities within the industry.

With this in mind, Clothier believes the answer to the recruitment crisis is twofold. Firstly, the industry should invest in technology to take out some of the harder, more repetitive work that needs to be done, he says. This would improve workers’ hours and reduce the amount of labour needed, relieving some of the pressure on the market.

His second solution is to tackle the reputation of the industry from the bottom up. Wyke Farms hopes to achieve just this with its Engage Early plan, which sees the processor visit schools to educate children about what’s actually involved in the industry. “The objective is that children, instead of saying I want to be a space man, will say they want to sell cheese all around the world,” says Clothier.

Wyke isn’t the only dairy company going into schools. Ornua, which manufactures Kerrygold and Pilgrims Choice, also has a local schools programme, where it runs Dragons’ Den-style competitions and talks. “Part of our ambition is to be our region’s preferred employer,” says Annette Fleet, UK HR director at Ornua. “People need to know who we are throughout the community.”

“Food and farming faces a ‘whole load’ of unique challenges when it comes to convincing youngsters to sign up”

Müller has also been involved in schools work and careers fairs, and in July 2017 organised for nine work experience students to spend a week learning about the manufacturing process in partnership with Industrial Cadets. “Wherever possible, we’re out at careers fairs to attract the right talent, working with schools to inspire the next generation to consider a career in dairy, and we’re also upskilling employees to ensure they continue to develop,” says Steve Hodkinson, director of HR at Müller Yoghurts and Desserts.

Alongside its involvement in the Eden programme, Dairy Crest is involved in the IGD programme Feeding Britain’s Future, which offers learning opportunities to young unemployed people and school students.

For higher education students, Dairy Crest also has an innovation centre on site at Harper Adams, from where it takes a couple of students for a 12-month placement every year before they finish their degree. “The majority of them come back and work with us on a full-time basis, which is something we cultivate, but obviously having the insight into the business, they want to come back,” says Lucy Cooper, resourcing manager at Dairy Crest.

But while it’s all well and good looking towards the next generation, the promise of Brexit means the problem is here now. “The challenge of Brexit is that there’s not a lot of labour now, so anything that constrains the labour market is going to create problems,” says Fosh, who warns problems won’t be restricted to lower-skilled jobs, but also the higher ones.

“A number of businesses rely on people from places like France where they have a good educational system in terms of food science and a culture of appreciating dairy,” she says.

Arla, which is based in Denmark, has a global F15 graduate scheme, which takes 15 people from top universities across the world and puts them in three different placements in different countries across two years. Head of HR Pauline Hogg says this scheme will not change post Brexit, as being global is “integral” to Arla’s business.

“We still want to make sure we’re moving people where we have that opportunity to be a global dairy business with global brands, and therefore the movement of people is absolutely sacrosanct in that. We want to make sure we sponsor that to create mobility around the world,” says Hogg.

However, she warns the government should also be doing more to help the dairy industry recruit from within the UK. “We think there’s still a big role for the government to play in encouraging young people to view the STEM careers and technical education as viable career options,” she adds.

“There’s still a big role for the government to play in encouraging young people”

This, Hogg suggests, should be done through offering careers advice, encouraging businesses to use the apprenticeship levy and working with colleges to make sure schemes complement what businesses need.

The apprenticeship levy, which rolled out in April 2017, requires all companies that pay more than £3m in wages to contribute 0.5% of their overall salary bill into an independent levy fund, which employers can then access to finance apprenticeship schemes. Fleet says the scheme has been good for Ornua, which used it to create an engineering apprenticeship starting in September this year in partnership with Stoke-on-Trent College and the Outward Bound Trust.

But not all British dairy companies see the levy as a step forward in tackling the recruitment crisis. “It’s quite a negative thing. It’s taken as a tax that you can then get back if you run apprenticeships, but it’s more stick than carrot,” says Clothier. “There are better ways that it can be done. A bit more community engagement and tax breaks - that’s how governments can encourage businesses.”

Either way, with only 18 months left until Brexit, the dairy industry needs to act fast if it’s going to sort out its image and avert the labour crisis. And with many other sectors also struggling to recruit, it might need more than a facelift to ensure it’s not left on the shelf.