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Is Staff Engagement the Key to Solving Retention Issues for the Food Industry?

July 3, 2024
Lukas Vanterpool

The food and drink manufacturing industry is currently in a fragile state. Since the vote to leave the European Union, the sector which is heavily reliant upon migrant workers was thrown into a state of uncertainty as the future of its workers was put at risk.

Coupled with a report which found that three-quarters of Food and Drink Federation (FDF) members have said that ingredient prices have risen and product margins decreased, food manufacturing is a sector which requires some TLC.

In the UK, the food and drink manufacturing sector employs in excess of 117,000 EU workers, employing 400,000 workers in total. As the largest manufacturing sector in the country, it generates over £100 billion for the economy each year.

By 2024, it’s estimated that 140,000 recruits will be required in order to meet market demand. Therefore, it’s imperative that not only does the food industry position itself as an attractive industry to work in to new recruits, but that current employees do not up sticks and leave the industry altogether.

From the FDF survey, whose members include big names such as Coca-Cola and Mr Kipling, 69.5% said that they were less confident about the UK business environment, and 71% of companies who employ EU workers said they were concerned about the Brexit result.

However, despite this, labour turnover in the manufacturing industry is now 12%, compared to 17% the previous year. Whether this is due to workers becoming fearful of job-hopping due to Brexit, or because businesses are keen to hold on to workers in order to keep up with demands and benefit from the weaker pound which has resulted in increased exports, is highly debated.

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With all of this in mind, it’s clear that regardless of Brexit or not, the food sector needs to ensure that it retains employees if it is to meet up with current and future demand and continue to reduce its labour turnover rate.

Below are the issues facing the industry and how staff engagement could hold the answer to ensuring that employees stay with the organisation.

No Onboarding Process


No onboarding strategy is set out when employees join the company, meaning new recruits are missing out on a proper introduction to the company and the processes to be followed. On-boarding is especially crucial in the food manufacturing industry where regulations must be followed.

By failing to properly induct a new employee, organisations are failing to position themselves as a company which cares about its workers and wants them to be successful in their role and the business as a whole. A positive experience with the company in the first few days and weeks is crucial to gaining employee buy-in and will ensure they become an engaged worker from the start.


Ensure that you have a detailed and thorough onboarding process set out for new employees. Not only will this mean that an employee feels that they are starting a role at a company that cares about their success, but it will ensure that they can hit the ground running and make their way towards hitting targets and production quotas.

As a guide, it should detail everything from working hours and lunch breaks to the inner workings of the company and what you want to achieve, as well as set out processes that should be followed when carrying out certain tasks and how their first few weeks in the role will look.

An all-encompassing guide, a thorough on-boarding pack will mean that all employees are integrated into the company have received the same initial training. It will also mean that they are engaged from their first day at the company and know exactly what to expect from the get-go.

Poor communication


Employers are failing to open themselves up to the lines of communication required to ensure that employees are happy, engaged and fulfilled in their job role and at the organisation.

The food manufacturing industry has long had a reputation of the ‘old boys’ club mentality, often meaning that new, younger recruits are not progressed throughout the company or given the opportunity and required time to discuss their vision and views on their job, the company, and the wider industry.


Communication is essential if employees are to feel valued in the workplace, therefore they should feel empowered to speak up and share their concerns with you, the employer.

To improve communication, Kinnerton Confectionary introduced ‘tea with the team’ as a means to provide an open session where employees are invited to share anything on their mind. By providing a forum for employees to discuss issues in a group and on an individual basis, they are provided with an avenue for which they can share an problems they are coming up against, workplace frustrations and share any suggestions for improvements.

The key to successful employee communication is to ensure that each member of staff feels that their contribution is heard and actioned upon. Therefore, if an employee raises an issue or makes a suggestion, document this and make this clear to an employee that it has been noted. Then, where applicable, act upon this.

A proactive approach to communication on an employer’s part will ensure that going forwards, employees are likely to create dialogue as they will feel valued.

No development plan


Another issue facing the food manufacturing industry is the little career progression offered, meaning that employees often leave job roles to move to another organisation in order to progress up the career ladder. There are no ‘lifers’ in the industry, with many manufacturing employees staying between two to four years at an organisation before moving on.

This culture of leaving to gain a promotion is doing little to gain employee buy-in into the company as staff members feel that no career progression is on offer, and is leaving employers with vacancies to fill, on top of the increased number of workers required by 2024.

In addition to little development, there is also a shortage of skilled workers, further placing pressure on organisations to improve their training programmes, so that employee’s skillsets are future-proofed. In an industry where knowledge of machinery and processes is essential, losing expertise is something which HR should be cautious of.


A development and training programme should have a framework which can be used as a basis for the plans, but ultimately, should be bespoke for each employee. As a guide, this should include an employee’s plan for progression throughout the company and where they can expect to see themselves if they achieve their goals. It should also detail training that they may be required to go on or essential knowledge which they are required to have if they want to progress.

By ensuring that development and training plans are detailed in one area, employees are able to manage their progression with guidance from their manager. Employees need to feel empowered to challenge and learn and receive feedback and motivation on how they are progressing.

Effectively managed, well-trained and developed staff are much more likely to stay with an organisation than those who are not. Therefore, it’s imperative that food manufacturing organisations implement a thorough training and development plan for all employees.

Staff retention does not need to be about big gestures to win them over; it’s often about taking it back to basics and ensuring that the right foundation has been implemented in which employees can feel supported and developed. It is this base which food manufacturers need to ensure they have in place if they are to improve their retention issues, and while labour turnover in the industry has reduced, if manufacturers want this number to be maintained or drop further, then a retention strategy should be created.

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About The Author

Lukas Vanterpool

I started The Sterling Choice with Gareth Whyatt back in August 2013. We’ve always remained true to ourselves and what it is we’re trying to achieve – A great company with great people and great results! This journey never stops, we are always finding ways to support our colleagues and make sure they leave every day feeling fulfilled.

Over the years I’ve always been asked “what’s your USP??, what makes you different from all the other agencies??”. That’s an easy one for me to answer – “Our culture makes our business and our people make our culture”

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