· 6 min read · Features

Interview with Angela Coleshill, HR director at the Food and Drink Federation

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Food and Drink Federation HR director Angela Coleshill is on a mission to avert a skills shortage in food manufacturing.

It's a good job Angela Coleshill is so organised. The former divisional director at bakers chain Greggs and now HRD of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is, by her own admission, "a wearer of many hats". Whether it's as a board member of Improve - the sector skills council (SSC) for the non-alcoholic food and drink manufacturing and processing sector - or as head of FDF's competitiveness steering group or as a skills and qualifications adviser to the Department for Children, Schools and Families, Coleshill nowadays spends far less time overseeing the federation's 70 or so staff (she says it's 40% of her job) than she does representing the interests of the approximately 500,000 workers directly employed in the food sector. "I came here eight years ago on a job share," she confesses. "I thought it would be a small job. If only I had known."

Colehill's outward-facing responsibilities reflect the set-up of FDF itself, which is a not-for-profit body, funded by food and drink manufacturers to lobby the Government on their behalf on issues they could be or may soon be affected by. It's a multi-faceted mission: not only to ensure the Government does not overlook the £22 billion sector, but also to try to make sure it does not impose legislation that could impact on its future success.

"The Government still thinks about manufacturing in terms of aerospace and cars and defence," she says. "It's my job to convince them this is not the case, to promote the sector and to work with employers and Government to make sure food and drink is seen as a valuable career before skills shortages start to hit." She adds: "At the same time, FDF members are only just waking up to the fact there is an impending skills shortage crisis. For this sector to thrive, both parties need to start working to get the generation for 10 years' time ready now. We haven't yet had the sort of wake-up call that other industries have had, but it's vital we don't repeat what they have done, and start too late."

Her problem is that, of late, food and drink has been something of an understated success story. Against established views of what 'manufacturing' is, she says government ministers are still surprised to hear food and drink actually comprises 17% of the UK manufacturing sector, the largest single contributor. Food and drink has contributed the most towards overall manufacturing turnover during the past decade and was the least-affected sector during the recession - down in production by just 1.9% compared with 13.1% for manufacturing as a whole. It is also the most 'British' part of the UK manufacturing base, with two-thirds of employers having 75% or more of their production based in the UK. With statistics like these, though, it's hard to convince anyone there are problems just around the corner.

"We've done a lot of work recently with the University of Cambridge and the Institute for Manufacturing to present the case for what food and drink is worth to the UK economy," she says. "We have just published a futures report (September 2010) that predicts what the situation will be in 15 years' time, explaining to HRDs in the sector what they need to do now for this contribution to continue to grow."

Here, the outlook is far less rosy: of 20 'key drivers' identified as destabilising factors going forward to 2025-2030, 'skill availability' and 'skills and education' are two areas positioned on a matrix as mid to high in uncertainty but which will have high impact. At best, food and drink will be seen as an 'attractive industry/career; successful (and) reskilling of the workforce'; at worst, though, it is described as having 'an absence of skilled people - an unattractive career'. If this bleak position is reached, the report predicts 200,000 jobs being lost overseas as companies seek cheaper costs and more reliable skills. In 2008, FDF predicted there would be a 118,000 worker gap in food and drink manufacturing and processing by 2014 unless recruitment to the sector increases.

"We have been working hard to attract talent for the future, but are frustrated by the current lack of new entrants leaving education with the right technical skills and aspirations to start a career in our sector," says Coleshill. "Lord Mandelson's (former business secretary) recent speech to the Work Foundation talked of 'an indifference to manufacturing in the UK economy with neglect of science, engineering, technology and skills'.

"Specific FDF projects have included getting HRD members to work with schools - such as the School Challenge campaign - and partnering with media outlets, such as the Telegraph, which ran a Manufacturing Insight series," she says, but it's on the complexity around training and the interplay between all the awarding bodies and development agencies that she is aiming to provide more help. "Improve is trying to take a lead here," she says. Although Improve was one of the first sector skills councils to have recently been re-licensed by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), the new Government has shown lukewarm support for them and regional development agencies (RDAs), preferring the National Skills Academy (NSA) route instead. "We also have a NSA for the food and drink sector, but members are saying, 'I don't get this whole market qualifications and regional bodies stuff'," she says. "Involve is therefore seeking as many views from members as it can about what employers think of RDAs."

Possible government plans to revive local enterprise councils, as a more efficient way of directing training funding to employers, throws another group into the mix. One way or another, Coleshill says, employers will need to understand the system that applies to them, whichever is decided. "Simplification of the skills landscape and the provision of clearer information on how the system works is a high priority," she says.

"The complexity has been quite confusing for many, which is another barrier to attracting the right candidates."

Education, she says, is something employers cannot afford to scrimp on. As recently as 2005/6, just 14% of learning in the sector was work-based learning, and although the proportion of employees in the food and drink sector who hold Level 3 qualifications (A levels or above) rose from just over 28% in 2007 to a little under 35% by 2008, 28% of all employees in the sector still do not have basic literacy and numeracy skills. Coleshill says the requirement for greater skills will only increase, but only 15% have Level 4 skills and above.

"Historically, we've been a low-skilled sector, but technical skills is where shortages already exist," she adds. "There is a problem of up-skilling - which is a problem of the image of the sector - and providing training, which is a problem of how the system works once people are in it. Improve's aim is to create flexibility by creating more opportunities for employees to build training credits that can lead to a qualification. The opportunity we want to seize is for more employees to be able to see there is some form of career path that's more vocational."

A food manufacture NVQ, which allows employers to link their own training to a sector-wide competency-based qualification framework, was launched in 2008, followed by Improve's diploma in manufacturing, launched in 2009 for 14-19 year-olds. An apprenticeship scheme was also introduced. But one of the best tools in her box, admits Coleshill, is good old face-to-face contact - a reason she is kept so busy. As HRD of the FDF, she has an enviable network of other HRDs in her field. "I know about 20 HRDs really closely - from big-brand companies such as Kraft, Nestle and William Jackson (owner of the Aunt Bessie brand and Parripak Foods)." She adds: "This is a real help for promoting issues around training and development and skills among the key people in the sector. This is when you hear real stories about the realities food businesses face - such as issues around flexible working, on-the-job training and stuff like this."

Occasionally, these industry-wide concerns - ones on which she is beholden to lobby government on behalf of FDF members - clash with her own ideas of HR best practice for the staff she manages at the federation. "At the coal-face, you hear first-hand about daily issues that affect employers in the sector," she says. "The classic is flexible working and default retirement. Members want default retirement and want us to lobby Government hard on this point. Their problem is that because staff turnover is actually quite low (workers stay an average of nine years), they need to be able to plan succession." She admits: "This is not my own personal opinion; we support it here for employees at FDF, but you have to accept the different hats you wear. The same applies to maternity pay - employer members ask us to lobby not to pay full pay after 20 weeks, for example, while we at FDF provide full pay for more than the statutory minimum."

Do these conflicts hamper her? "Sometimes I 'Google' what my views are supposed to be on things," she muses. "Some might ask if I would support them here at FDF? But I'm easy with it; it's horses for courses. Some members will enhance their benefits, or their training provision, or their recruitment practices as they see fit. The point is, they just don't want to be legislated to do so by the Government."

In the meantime, this HRD intends to make sure employers and the Government alike understand what they need to do to keep this thriving sector fit for future success. "We have to ensure we stay sustainable," she says. "We believe in careers, growth and opportunity."

17% of the UK manufacturing sector is in food & drink

28% of employees in the sector lack basic literacy and numeracy skills

15% have Level 4 skills and above.