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The food manufacturing industry has a major talent problem – here’s why

July 3, 2024
Lukas Vanterpool

The UK’s food manufacturing industry is currently battling an issue that no industry wants to face…it has a chronic shortage of people and talent. 

But what does this mean for the industry? What factors have caused this shortage? Who is to blame, and what can be done to plug the gaps? 

We’ve taken a deep dive into the issue to try and shed some light. 

The impact of the labour shortage

It’s no secret that labour shortages in the UK’s food manufacturing industry have come to a head over the past two years. According to a report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) published earlier this year, there were approximately 500,000 live vacancies out of 4.1 million food industry roles in August 2021. 

Resulting impacts include scaling back production and reduced quality of produce; the replacement of UK-grown produce with international imports; delivery delays; increased pressure on staff; and reduced business profitability, growth and investment.

To cite just a few examples, this shortage has meant farms have been unable to hire the seasonal workers they need to harvest food, leaving hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of crops wasted in fields; the lack of skilled workers such as butchers to work in the meat processing industry has had a crippling impact on the pig sector in particular, and across the board, businesses in the manufacturing sector have seen overall output fall due to general recruitment issues.

This is forcing companies within the food manufacturing industry to invest heavily just to retain and recruit staff while at the same time contemplating a future with potentially fewer people and greater levels of automation.

Not to mention, of course the potential increase in costs that this shortage then passes along the supply chain to the consumer. 

What has caused the staff shortage in food manufacturing?

Brexit and the reduction of an overseas seasonal workforce

The UK’s seasonal workforce has been falling since 2018, following the introduction of the post-Brexit Seasonal Worker Visa programme.

Where previously (pre-Brexit), most seasonal workers came from the European Union without restriction, the new visa regime is now one of the only routes for workers to enter the UK from abroad. The process to obtain such a visa has been criticised as complicated, with long and frustrating turnaround times.

In 2021, approximately 30,000 seasonal worker visas were made available and the government has said 10,000 more will be granted in 2022. However, the government also plans to reduce the number of Seasonal Worker Visas available in 2023 before phasing them out altogether in 2024, with a view to rely on domestic workers and automation, including fruit picking robots, filling the gap.

Despite the additional 10,000 visas due to be granted this year, data from The Grocer states that over half (56%) of companies in the food and drink manufacturing sector are still facing ‘chronic shortages’ of labour when it comes to lower skilled roles, while 67% are facing shortages in seasonal labour. Shortages are most acute when it comes to unskilled roles (72%), such as pickers and packers, which are the roles the UK relies on overseas workers to fill. 

An article from BBC News, highlights the plight of a Suffolk strawberry farmer who just can’t get the labour to pick his fruit. A first hand account of a Romanian fruit picker in the same article only further highlights the issue, with him confirming that family members in Romania are put off travelling to the UK for this kind of work, because of all the incredibly lengthy admin required to obtain Seasonal Worker Visas. 

Looking at the longer term, the ready access to seasonal labour has gone a long way to shape agriculture in the UK over the last decade (pre-Brexit), making labour intensive crops more viable. Farmers and businesses that have invested in these intensive practices, could well begin to see disruption to their business models that have come to rely on large numbers of seasonal workers. 

The impact of COVID-19

With already significantly fewer overseas seasonal workers in the UK by the time the industry faced a global pandemic, existing workers were left to pick up the slack during an incredibly challenging time. 

Due to the pandemic, many foreign workers went home to be with their families and did not return. 

A study by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) states that, ‘The global pandemic has seen 1.3 million foreign-born workers leave the UK. This workforce is yet to return with anecdotal evidence suggesting that they may be unlikely to ever return.’

Domestic workers and those that didn’t return to their home country or leave the industry have been left disillusioned with the government’s treatment of food manufacturing workers. Many workers felt abandoned, let down and frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement of their tireless efforts to keep the nation fed and supermarket shelves stocked during the pandemic. 

Clive Black, head of research at UK-based Shore Capital Markets makes this point with what he calls “the great retirement”. He told Just Food that Covid-19 “has seen more than one million people leave the [UK] labour market. Lockdown one, in particular, encouraged a lot of people to reassess their lives.”

In an article from Food Manufacture, David Camp, Association of Labour Providers (ALP) chief executive said, ‘the UK food and farming workforce keeps our nation fed….hailed as the nation’s Food Heroes during the pandemic, the workforce is often taken for granted’.

He makes a good point. There were no doorstep claps for the workers who kept our supermarket shelves stocked during the pandemic; no public support and celebration from the government. A 

reduced workforce (reduced further with workers having to isolate or being taken ill with Covid during this time) was under immense pressure to deliver. The safety measures that other industries benefited from, like working from home, were just not a possibility. 

Something had to give, and talented workers left the industry without returning. 

The Ukraine-Russia war

Sky News introduces another contributing factor to the shortage – the war in the Ukraine.

It states farmers are blaming not only significant reductions in the overall number of Seasonal Worker Visas granted by the Home Office, and delays in processing those visas, but also the drop in the number of Ukrainian workers coming to the UK after the Russian invasion. 

According to Sky News, last year more than 60% of workers on seasonal visas were from Ukraine and 8% from Russia. With adult Ukrainian men unable to leave the country this number has plummeted. 

It also reports that Russians claim their visa applications are being cancelled without explanation by recruitment agencies despite there being no explicit ban on Russians working in the UK.


An ageing workforce and an industry with a PR problem

So, we know Brexit and Covid-19 are huge factors in the current talent and labour shortage. The Ukraine-Russia war certainly isn’t helping matters either. 

But there are other factors behind the shortage, such as an ageing domestic workforce. A study by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) estimates that almost a third of the workforce is set to reach retirement age by 2033-35. The Grocer cites data taken from the ONS Quarterly Labour Survey in Q3 2021 that shows that across the food processing industry, over 40% of the workforce is aged over 45, while the meat processing sector has a very small percentage of workers aged 16-24. 

The industry is struggling to recruit at the same pace at which people are forecast to leave the workforce, which will leave a shortfall in both headcount and invaluable skills and experience

Part of the challenge is that the industry suffers from misperceptions from within the UK about the employment opportunities that are available within it. It is often perceived to be low-skilled and, consequently, low-paid.

Just Food quotes Michael Harte. managing director of Bridge Cheese, who explains that locally-based recruits are hard to find. He said, “We work in a chilled environment and that’s not to everyone’s liking. Fifty per cent of the people don’t even turn up for the interview.”

It isn’t only the lower-skilled workers that the industry is short of though. Harte goes on to say, “we need that labour pool for the factory, office roles and apprenticeships but that pool of people doesn’t seem to be available.”

The Office For National Statistics (ONS) confirms the difficulty in recruiting and maintaining both managerial and production staff. It states that in March 2022, 60% of businesses in the food and beverage sector reported a low number of applications for the roles on offer. 

These misconceptions are harming the recruitment efforts of the industry. In reality, the food manufacturing industry is broad and complex. There are many varied roles within it ranging from production managers and directors to scientists and biochemists, programmers, fishmongers, agricultural machinery drivers and packers.

Who is to blame?

This is a tricky one. Brexit and Covid-19 created a perfect storm within an industry already vulnerable to any kind of upset in the economy, the labour market and supply chains.

Due to Brexit the sector was already facing an issue with labour shortages. Throw in a global pandemic and you’re really up against it. 

The industry’s initial response to the labour shortage of increasing wages and introducing various incentives, often resulted in labour movement and churn within the sector, which led to higher overall labour costs. 

In an extremely competitive market – and let’s not forget how unprecedented the last couple of years have been for all industries – retailers were reluctant to put prices up and therefore also reluctant to pay suppliers more for their goods. 

This coupled with the government’s non-existent engagement, lack of understanding and even trying to pass the blame onto the industry itself (the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committees’ words, not ours), only exacerbated the problem.

The enormous pressure of these factors exerted across the supply chain resulted in the attrition of talent and a reduction in the volume of labour.

Longer term, the lack of home-grown young talent fuelled by negative perceptions of the industry means that the skills gap the industry is facing doesn’t have a quick fix solution. 

Is it all doom and gloom? What can be done?

The industry has at least acknowledged the issue surrounding the lack of domestic talent and has faced into sourcing a solution. Earlier this year, The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD) launched their new ‘Food and Drink Careers Passport’, which has now been introduced in England and  Wales. 

The aim of the Careers Passport is to make it easier for manufacturers to recruit employees for entry-level roles who already have accreditations in Food Safety Level 2, HACCP Level 2, Health and Safety Level 2 and Allergens Awareness by holding this information in a central database. Therefore speeding up the entire recruitment process, from interview shortlisting to onboarding.

Head of Industry Growth at the Food and Drink Federation Caroline Keohane told Food Matters Live earlier this year,  “The food and drink industry has a long history of hiring a wide-ranging and diverse workforce at all skills levels and we need that to continue if we are to build a strong pipeline of home-grown talent and develop our next generation of engineers, food scientists, marketeers and leaders…The Careers Passport is a practical, industry-led initiative to provide a means to accelerate recruitment in all communities – the next tool to levelling up the nation.”

Darren Labbett, the managing director of Woods Foodservice, a wholesaler that supplies the pub and restaurant trade told The Guardian,  “There is a skills shortage…The skills gap needs to be filled, you can’t just pay people to be a meat processor, it is a skilled job and you need qualifications.”

Not only will the Careers Passport hopefully go some way to help speed up the recruitment process within the industry for those already qualified, but its link with the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink means that less qualified workers can learn about the various qualifications required for the industry to become a more desirable candidate. We hope the Careers Passport will hopefully also encourage a cycle of continual learning and progression of qualifications which will build up a pool of home-grown talent. 

What else can be done? Food Manufacture details recommendations from EFRA which support long term labour strategies such as the Careers Passport. As well as this though, EFRA champions revised immigration measures, a review of the Skilled Workers Visa scheme to address the costs and other challenges faced by employers to meet the realistic needs of the sector. Watch this space…

Having recruited within the food manufacturing industry across the UK, Europe and America since 2013, we like to think we understand the ins and outs of the sector. Despite the issues facing the industry right now, we are optimistic about the future and are committed to continuing to place the best talent in the most rewarding roles within the sector.

If you are a hiring manager in need of quality candidates or someone looking to advance or start their career in the food manufacturing industry, let’s see what we can do together. 

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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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