They are young, gifted and turning their backs on the food and drink industry. James Durston looks at what needs to be done to attract talented graduates to the sector

If the prospects of any industry depend on the quality of young people interested in it as a career, then the food and drink industry has cause to be very concerned indeed.
Research conducted for Careers in Food and Drink (CIFAD), a sister publication to The Grocer, has found that just 17% of undergraduates consider food and drink retailing a viable career, while only 14% would think of going into food and drink manufacturing. A paltry 2% of those polled said they would definitely consider either food manufacturing or retail jobs.
The findings raise the very real prospect of management level vacancies being filled with second-tier recruits, while the cream of candidates are skimmed off by other industries.
Paula Widdowson, the commercial director at Improve, the sector skills council for the food and drink manufacturing industry, thinks manufacturers especially have lots of work to do to make the sector more attractive to graduates. She warns: “At present we are world leaders in NPD and production, and the development and level to which we work are fantastic. But we’ve suffered from lack of awareness among the employee pool for 20 years and, if this prevails, we will go backwards.”
The CIFAD research, conducted by JMA Marketing and Research, polled 500 undergraduate students aged 20 to 24 years old at 15 universities around the UK. It found that, in general, the food and drink industry was ignored by a majority of undergraduates. Even by those likely to consider it as a career, it was seen as boring with long hours and low pay.
Retailing, in particular, failed to impress. When asked to name the things that might attract them to the sector, 47% could not come up with anything. When naming negative factors, 33% said it was boring or repetitive, while a further 17% cited low wages and unsociable hours. Manufacturing did not fare much better, with 43% unable to say anything positive. Negative factors included no appeal or interest value (30%, including 41% of those who said they were unlikely to
look for jobs in food and drink), while 24% said they knew little about it.
Widdowson thinks this last finding provides a big clue to what needs to be done to increase the sector’s appeal.
She says: “I’m not at all surprised that people think food and drink production is boring and unglamorous, but that’s purely because of their lack of awareness. Most people know about farming or about Jamie Oliver and what goes on in a kitchen, but they don’t know that the food they buy has to be processed. You can’t opt in to something if you don’t know it’s there, so as an industry we need to raise awareness of our sector.
“Once people actually understand the depth and breadth of tasks involved and identify with the brands, suddenly they get interested.”
Some companies, including Dairy Crest, Nestlé, Moy Park and Scottish & Newcastle, send their employees to schools to talk to children about the sector, asking questions such as: “Would you like to be the person who puts the bubbles in Aero?”
But not enough of this goes on, says Widdowson. “So far, we have managed this situation. But it won’t be long before it has a detrimental effect.”
Manufacturing also came up short when interviewees were asked to compare it with the media and telecoms sectors. They were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as ‘where talent and commitment will be rewarded’ and ‘is dynamic and moving forward’. Food and drink manufacturing consistently scored lowest of the three trades. However, some manufacturers are quick to deny that they have any problems recruiting skilled personnel.
Kirsty Dugan, HR adviser at Buckingham Foods, claims: “It hasn’t been difficult for us. When vacancies have arisen, particularly in NPD, there are far more candidates applying than we have room for. I’m not worried about the results of your research, because all the higher quality candidates we need have food science degrees.”
But Jonathan Grant-Nicholas, group communications director at Greencore, the chilled foods supplier, admits in the 2006 CIFAD publication that the industry has an image problem. “It’s not unlike the fashion industry in terms of the fast pace and its immediacy to everyday life, yet graduates often don’t realise there’s more to food manufacturing than monotonous production lines.”
More needs to be done to create awareness of the different roles in the manufacturing sector, such as sales, marketing, logistics and finance, he says. Retail faces a similar situation. Nigel Broome, CEO at Skillsmart Retail, the sector skills council for retail, says: “In general retail has a poor image and food and drink retail in particular is not high up the pecking order. The problem is many people work in shops when they’re young and get the impression that retail is hard work for low pay and unsociable hours.”
He believes the answer is for retailers to work together. He admits the competitive nature of retailing will make this difficult, but he thinks publicising the sector’s success stories is key to increasing its appeal. “We don’t brag about our successes enough. And with all the globalisation and domestic consolidation, these guys are going to need the highest calibre people to compete.”
The biggest skills deficiencies are in store management. Buying, merchandising and even IT tend to attract adequate numbers of capable people. But when it comes to store managers, it’s a different story.
Aldi has found one way to attract top people. While our research found that graduates on average can expect to start on a salary of £19,500, Aldi offers graduate trainees £37,000 with a company car on day one, rising to £53,000 within three years. The scheme was the highest of any retailer in The Times UK Graduate Careers Survey 2005.
Peter Casey, Aldi regional MD, says: “We offer this market-leading package in return for a demanding management training programme. Graduates become area managers within eight to 18 months. Then, within five years, the most successful graduates have the opportunity to become a director of logistics, operations, administration, trading or property, reporting directly to the regional MD.”
Others would do well to take a leaf out of Aldi’s book. A recent article in The Times found that graduates now look for either big salaries or long-term stability. Unfortunately, the food and drink industry is not perceived as offering either. Unless it changes this perception, it risks being left out in the cold.

Survey results
>>underGraduate attitudes
Only 17% of undergraduates say they are likely or very likely to consider a career in food and drink retail, while 14% say the same about manufacturing. A huge 55% say they are unlikely to or would never consider a career in the former, while 61% claim the same of the latter and 23% and 19% respectively say they are undecided either way.
The survey reveals high levels of ignorance about both sides of the food and drink industry among undergraduates. Consider the percentage of those surveyed who, when asked what they like or dislike about the industry, respond that they “don’t know” or “nothing particularly”. The survey also highlights the negative attitudes that persist towards the industry: it’s considered boring and offering little job satisfaction.
On the plus side, only a small percentage think that wages are poor, so there are some positive perceptions to capitalise on.

What do you like about food and
drink retailing?
Social/contact with others16%
Job satisfaction/opportunities15%
Marketing/opinions - research6%
Nothing liked/don’t know47%

What do you dislike about food
and drink retailing?
Not me/boring/repetitive33%
Unsociable hours/poor wages17%
The customers6%
Nothing disliked/don’t know30%

What do you like about food and
drink manufacturing?
Constantly changing/varied7%
Not boring/exciting7%Free drink/food9%
Essential/stable industry4%
Hands on/processing/production5%
Nothing particularly43%

What do you dislike about food
and drink manufacturing?
Sounds boring/repetitive11%
Doesn’t appeal/no interest 30%
Know little about it 24%
Bad pay/long hours 10%
No image/status/prestige 4%
Nothing particularly 9%
Other 12%
Source: CifaD/JMA Marketing and research