“Potential candidates see the food industry as warm and noisy, with salaries and packages that are not very attractive compared with other sectors like banking,” warns Pierre Boulaire, CEO of international recruitment specialist ManageriA.
The resulting competition for talent is set to increase as food production remains largely impervious to the economic shocks that have ripped through other sectors of the European economy.
“We’re looking at very significant increases in employment over the next 10 years,” says Professor Colin Dennis, president of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) and member of the board for Improve, the UK’s food and drink skills council.
“Companies are looking not only for food scientists and food technologists but also for a wider range of scientists and engineers to work in the food industry,” he added.
“All our clients across Europe are looking for the same sort of high-calibre people and bemoaning the lack of talent available,” agrees Stephen Jones, director of management consultants Focus Management. “It’s pushing up salaries for very good graduates.”
Food and drink is already the largest single manufacturing sector across the European Union in terms of both turnover and employment, providing jobs for around 4.2 million people, according to FoodDrinkEurope (the recently rebranded confederation of food and drink industries).
That’s a 13.5 per cent share of the jobs market in EU manufacturing as a whole. “The bit that makes me shake my head is that people are not being told about the great opportunities that are available in the food sector,” says Jones.
Even so, there are many candidates arriving on the market whose skills are a poor match for what the industry needs, and this can leave them struggling to get a foot in the door.
“In terms of skill set, the industry is not so relaxed about what they’re looking for,” says Louise Beales of Tailor Made Resources, which specialises in food production recruitment. “Big corporates have graduate training schemes, but most companies are looking for people with the right experience.”
The overall technical skill set required to work in food production has not changed much in response to increasing automation or changing factory practices, according to Beales.
It’s more the commercial environment that’s demanding a shift of focus among technical managers. “Technicians and production managers are having to become more commercial-facing. If your main customer is a major retailer, it’s imperative that you focus on their needs,” she says.