The ‘Brexit effect’ is impacting the food manufacturing sector in many different ways, including the availability of labour, skills and knowledge. Matthew Carr, joint managing director at Integrated Food Projects (IFP) explains what food manufacturers can do to solve the continuing people and skills shortage post-Brexit.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been difficult for food manufacturers, but they should be praised for the mammoth achievement of keeping production up with demand. Food and drink supply chains have continued to move and ultimately, supermarket shelves have remained stocked. But as Brexit came to fruition at the start of this year, its impact started to reveal cracks that had been growing for a long time.

“Since the UK voted to leave in the 2016 referendum, there has been a steady stream of skilled, foreign workers leaving the UK. Many have already returned home, or are looking for better opportunities in mainland Europe after moving up the ranks in the UK food manufacturing industry. Headlines in recent months may have focused on the issues that new border checks and a shortage of freight containers has had on supply chains, but the shortfall in workers has only intensified since Brexit and is set to continue throughout 2021. Proportionally, this has hit food manufacturers harder than many other sectors, with factories across the UK losing thousands of people who help to keep factories operating at maximum capacity and efficiency.

“Not only is the workforce reducing at a rapid rate, the talent pool is also shrinking. Food manufacturers are now finding it increasingly difficult to retain top talent and find new expertise. Many of those in management and leadership positions are foreign workers who have been in the UK for a number of years, gaining valuable experience and working their way into roles with wider responsibilities. However, with Brexit, many of these individuals are leaving their roles and homes in Britain for jobs in mainland Europe, and they are taking that experience and critical knowledge with them. The sector is facing a workforce challenge on two fronts – a reduction in both volume and talent.

“The ‘Brexit effect’ is providing a platform for businesses to change for the better, by being purpose-led, they can lead the way and put the value of people first – which in turn will always lead to positive results.”

“Food manufacturers must look to become ‘employers of choice’ if they wish to retain staff and combat the increased competition for talent. Over the last 12 months, COVID-19 has forced employers to become flexible and it has shown that the industry can adapt quickly, whilst still keeping up with demand. Adopting this mindset and making positive changes to attract and retain talented employees should be a key focus for all senior managers.

“Offering all employees opportunities for career development will help the industry to retain existing talent. Making employees feel valued is key, and offering promotions and a chance to work gain qualifications and achievable goals are small steps that will make a huge difference. Moving staff around factories to gain experience of different parts of the manufacturing process is another positive step that management can undertake to upskill staff and add variety into their jobs.

“Going above and beyond their legal obligations is not new to the industry. At IFP, we have worked on numerous capex projects where food manufactures have included staff wellbeing high on the priority list within their factory specifications. These have included changes such as more spacious factory floors, adding extra staff rooms and canteens, and locating factories close to urban areas to reduce commute times.

“I have recently been part of a project where an equal amount of time was spent on employee wellness, as was spent on building the factory itself. This is a trend which is becoming more common and is so important when it comes to attracting and retaining staff. Being an employer of choice can reduce churn – dramatically reducing any potential drop in productivity.

“As food manufacturing looks to the future, progress towards creating a positive working environment will also need to be coupled with the sensible implementation of automation – technology is now a baseline requirement for all manufacturers. There will undoubtedly be fewer people working in factories in the future, but those employees should be undertaking value added tasks.

“With many facilities now being tech-led, the job roles and responsibilities of staff have changed drastically in the last 10-20 years, meaning that they need to appeal to the new flurry of talent and then retain this once they are on board. To do this, they need to stay on top of the trend – often cited as being ‘factories of the future’ – and focus on sustainability and being people-led, rather than just results and output. Doing this well will deliver lower staff numbers and reduced overheads. If they do everything correctly, then staff will stay, and the results will speak for themselves.

“Although Brexit might mean it is inevitable that food manufacturers will face staffing difficulties, at least in the short-term, there is a way forward. Those businesses that look beyond ‘just price’ when planning capex projects, whether that is a new build or upgrade and extension, will be best placed to grow in the future. The ‘Brexit effect’ is providing a platform for businesses to change for the better, by being purpose-led, they can lead the way and put the value of people first – which in turn will always lead to positive results.”