Speaking at a MyKindaCrowd event in Westminster, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director of employment and skills Angela Coleshill said that "perception is everything" when looking to attract young people to the industry.
"We employ 400,000 people and provide two and a half times the income to the UK economy compared to the automotive industry," she said. "I think people are surprised to hear this. There are a lot of misconceptions about the sector, especially around technical and engineering roles. We're looking to bust some of those myths."
A survey of 700 young people carried out by MyKindaCrowd suggests 75% associate the food and drink sector primarily with fast-food retail. Almost one-half (43%) associate it with low pay, while 71% are not aware of the career opportunities it offers.
Speaking at the same event, department for business, innovation & skills (BIS) deputy director, pre-employment and basic skills Eoin Parker added that making children aware of opportunities in the industry is key.
"There's a big responsibility for employers to play the role of going into schools and communities and getting people interested," he said.
Justine Fosh, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink, agreed that the sector has a "chronic image problem" that's holding back its recruitment of technical candidates.
"In some of the less fashionable areas like meat, the image problem is leading to a real shortage in the pipeline of domestic talent," she said. "In a time of high youth unemployment this means we have to bring in up to half of the workers from overseas."
Tesco UK personnel director Judith Nelson told HR magazine role models within the industry are vital, especially for young women.
"The biggest win we had was when we appointed a female engineering director," she said. "The ripple effect through the business was huge."