The search for the Apprentice

The lack of skilled workers coming into the sector,

and the collapse of several UK processing plants, would suggest the industry is facing a recruitment crisis. Is employment floundering or is there more than meets the eye? Rebecca Wilkins reports

The mass job cuts following the recent spate of closures at UK meat and poultry plants, along with concern over the next generation of workers for the sector, has brought the current state of employment and recruitment into the spotlight. Peter Scott, of the British Meat Processor's Association (BMPA), says the UK

meat industry is robust, but he and others are quick to add that the current employment and recruitment climate within the sector is fragile none-the-less.

Norman Bagley, of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), says that while there was certainly a crisis in the medium-to-small sector 18 months ago, in the last couple of years the influx of east European workers has helped his members fill their vacancies more quickly. He says in terms of staff at management level, more vacancies were being filled by managers who had previously worked for larger processing companies, but due to a "slimming down" of many of the major processing companies, found themselves looking for a job with smaller operations.

Scott says: "The British meat industry is constantly having to rationalise and it does so in line with legislation, with consumers and with demand." Attracting workers into the sector, and more specifically into the processing side has proven difficult. Scott says the prospect of a physically demanding job in the less than appealing environment of a cold slaughterhouse could be seen to some as an unappealing option. "The fact is that the industry lacks the glamour that other sectors appear to have," he adds.

BMPA statistics reveal that in 1954 there were over 5,000 slaughterhouses in the UK, now there are just over 300. Scott says: "That reflects the change in the times and the change in demand. Even the biggest companies can come under pressure."

Large processing companies across the UK have recently been seen to bow to this pressure, a fate attributed to imports of cheap meat and poultry and the threat of avian influenza.

One UK processing company which has been feeling the impact of the global threats is the Grampian Country Food Group (GCFG), which faces a potential 210 redundancies from a workforce of 510 by the end of this month at its Llangefni chicken processing plant in Anglesey, Wales. Already, 80 jobs have been scrapped at its Banff plant in Scotland. Other companies too, have suffered, with almost 80 jobs lost at Cig Mon in Llangefni after it ceased trading in May and 100 jobs slashed at

TH Sutcliffe in Caernafon after it closed its processing plant along with a cutting plant in Newport in April 2006.

Speaking about the recent closures in Wales, Gwyn Howells, chief executive of HCC - Meat Promotion Wales, says it was unfortunate but there were still huge opportunities in the industry and in the wider food and drinks sector in Wales, which employs 15% of the Welsh workforce.

However, he says, gaps in the meat industry still need to be addressed. With this in mind, HCC is looking at a training programme to help underpin training needs. He says: "It's an issue that will need a longer term view."

Figures from the BMPA state that between 31 January and 31 May this year, 30 processing sites of all meat species closed in the UK and 32 licences were handed over with more than half of those (18) in England. Scott says: "The rationalisation of the major players will continue. The supermarkets want tighter and tighter controls on costs so they can give cheaper prices for consumers. This puts undue pressure on plants - so not all plants will survive." Scott believes the heavier reliance on meat sourced from abroad will continue, particularly from Argentina, Brazil, Australia and South Africa.

"Alternatively, they will start building meat plants in those countries. This would mean exporting jobs - which would not be terribly good for the industry," he adds.

The growing trend for UK companies to employ skilled workers from eastern Europe, particularly Poland, is crucial for the UK meat industry, Alistair Donaldson, of the Scottish Association of Meat and Wholesalers (SAMW) says. However, he was unable to say what effect this would have on the sector in the longer term.

Evidence suggests that retaining employees is an issue and one the meat industry, is trying to address. To encourage young managers in the Scottish meat industry to develop their skills and progress through to senior management, SAMW, with QMS and the Red Meat Industry Forum (RMIF), has devised a training programme. The Meat Training Council (MTC), the UK's awarding body for the meat and poultry industry, aims to recognise the skills of employees through qualifications and does so via a range of NVQs from basic to management levels.

Dungannon Meats, based in Northern Ireland, is one company which delivers NVQ training on site.

John Proctor, who works for Dungannon Meats, says he believes training was vital for retaining employees. He says his company provided internal training allowing employees to work their way up from the production floor through to management.

He says: "The industry is making strides to try and address employment and recruitment issues. However, I would say that the food industry isn't looked upon as 'sexy' unlike other industries such as finance and IT, which is unfortunate because there are some tremendous careers to be had in the meat industry."

Improve, one of 25 sector skills councils established by the government, plays a role in driving skills in the workplace. Focusing on the food and drink sector, the remit of Improve is to promote higher productivity and stronger competition for UK businesses in a global market. It does this by working closely with employers, with educational establishments and with private training organisations.

Results compiled by Improve show that 19% of meat sub-sector establishments in England have reported having had hard-to-fill or skill-shortage vacancies (source - LSC). MTC figures show that 7.4% of businesses employ workers whose first language is not English and 11% of the meat industry's workforce has a first language that is not English. To reflect the rise of non-British nationals in the trade, David Grailey, of the MTC says the awarding body had recently been approved to translate NVQs into Polish and Portuguese. He says this was one way in which the MTC could help members retain its overseas workers. "The number of people coming into the industry eligible for training and qualifications decreased quite dramatically up until September last year - before that, we weren't allowed to translate NVQs."

He adds young people were particularly difficult to recruit, with research from Improve revealing that skill shortages are not solved by recruiting school-leavers as they "have little interest in the industry".

Grailey says one way to alleviate the problem was to encourage careers advisors to engage with young people about the job possibilities that exist within the meat industry.

Although trade figures insist the UK meat and poultry industry is currently not facing an employment and recruitment crisis, clearly there are threats that could challenge this situation in the future. With cheap imports threatening to flood the home-market, the picture could be seen as bleak. However, the issue of retaining a healthy domestic meat and poultry market has been flagged up by organisations such as HCC, and training courses are being developed across the UK to address it. This is in addition to work being carried out by MTC and Improve, both of which are constantly developing strategies to retain employees who are enticed to enter the meat and poultry sector in the first place.

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