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Meeting the skills gap

Meeting the skills gap


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There are not enough young people coming into the agri-food sector to fulfil demand.

Reverberate's Managing Director, Philip Gibson, talked to Steve McLean, Head of Agriculture and Fisheries at Marks & Spencer (pictured below), to find out more about the issue and what M&S is doing about it.

Steve MThe challenge

PG: There is a lot of noise in the industry about skills shortages and a lack of young people entering the industry. It is now nine years since RASE published its 'New blood' report that suggested we needed 60,000 new entrants within 10 years to meet the growing demand for food production but everything points to this still being an issue.

SM: That's right and it remains a massive problem. It is one of the most common conversation topics I have with suppliers across all sectors and doesn't just affect primary agriculture, it also has a big impact on the processing and manufacturing sectors of the food industry too.

It is getting to the point where it is hard to find skilled and experienced people to take some jobs, particularly technical roles. Agriculture and food is a complex area and there can be huge variation in the skills and knowledge needed from one sector to another.

What can be done

PG: It isn't a simple issue to solve, is it? What do you think needs to be done?

SM: A shortage of younger people coming into the industry over the last 10-15 years now means that there is a shortage of people to fill middle and senior management roles in some sectors. This is a hard one to address because there simply aren't people around that have developed the right skills and experience in their career. What must happen is that the industry needs to appeal to school leavers, university graduates, etc. now to ensure that the skills gap doesn't get even wider in the years ahead.

PG: So, why do you think the industry has ended up with this skills shortage? 

SM: It is an interesting area - all too often agriculture isn't seen as offering appealing career opportunities and so people dismiss it. Yet there are plenty of great jobs, and the real opportunity for career progression, so the industry needs to do more to promote itself to young people as an exciting place to work. 

I think sometimes agriculture has an image of negativity, which is unfair, but it has almost become a stereotype that those involved in agriculture work long hours, for poor returns. I think the education system has a role to play in this too. All too often you hear stories about how people were told by careers advisers that agriculture was a career of last resort and we need to address these stereotypes and make it clear that there are fantastic opportunities no matter what your academic ability or ambition. The industry also needs to think about how it recognises its professionalism through CPD schemes and membership of relevant professional bodies.

PG: That's a key point you make there, Steve. I was warned off agriculture as a career choice by my teachers, parents and farming friends. I persevered and I'm so glad that I did, as the opportunities to have a challenging, exciting and rewarding career are superb. I completely agree we need to knock down the stereotypes, but how do you think that can be achieved?

SM: There are already loads of great initiatives across the industry to address this. Charities like Farming & Countryside Education (FACE) do great work in getting school children out on farms to learn how food is produced. Of course, there is also the amazing work done by LEAF with Open Farm Sunday, which has made such a difference to consumer engagement with the industry. These are general engagement platforms, but that is important because children must understand a bit about where food comes from before they can have their eyes opened to the possibilities of a career in this field. Then there's the Bright Crop initiative, something we are proud to have supported, which is all about the industry having a single voice and encouraging industry professionals out into schools to enthuse people about careers in agriculture. There are loads of other examples of great initiatives, but we all need to play our part. Communicating the opportunities to young people is key to delivering the change we need to see.

PG: That's so true - it is easy for us all to acknowledge the problem but then do nothing about addressing it. M&S has some initiatives of its own - can you tell me a bit about them?

SM: We recognised that we had an important role to play in addressing this issue several years ago - it is key to delivering a secure and sustainable supply of raw materials for the future. As a result, education is one of the main themes of our Farming for the Future programme, alongside efficiency, ethics and the environment. We undertake a range of activity including supporting apprenticeships in the aquaculture sector and sponsoring young people to attend conferences and events. We also support student projects at CAFRE in Northern Ireland and provide placement opportunities for students at Harper Adams. 

The initiative I am most proud of, though, is the development of a unique executive education programme. We partnered with Cranfield University School of Management to develop a bespoke Agricultural Leadership Programme - a five-day course in sustainability, supply chain management and leadership. This pioneering programme runs annually and now has an alumnus of more than 50 students. This is all about developing the young people in the industry to be the leaders of tomorrow, something that is so critical to addressing the shorter-term skills gap.

PG: It is great to see a retailer taking a leading role in addressing this issue, Steve. But everyone needs to play their part, don't they? If you work in agriculture, you have a role in promoting the industry to others…

SM: That's right - ultimately, we will only change perception of the industry if enough of the people working in it are positive about the opportunities. There are always going to be challenges ahead, but it is critical that we enthuse people to embrace the opportunities that brings. It is also important that young, ambitious people can see real career progression potential if they opt for an agri-food career path, so that we can attract the brightest and best. If you work in agriculture, then spread the word!


M&S Agricultural Leadership Programme

Reverberate Account Director, Lauren Chambers, was lucky enough to participate in the M&S Agricultural Leadership Programme in 2015. As well as developing her knowledge of the challenges around sustainable agriculture, she broadened her network of industry contacts and developed her leadership skills. 

"Taking part in the Agricultural Leadership Programme was a fantastic experience. Over the five days I gained a huge amount of insight into the challenges of creating a sustainable supply chain. Getting the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other people from different parts of the supply chain was very valuable. I also had the chance to learn about and challenge my own leadership style, which was very thought-provoking!"

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Written by Reverberate at 10:02


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