Manpower Time-bomb in the Food Production Industry
Industry estimates calculate that between 10-20% of the total food production industry is set to retire within the next ten years. This sort of figure is to be expected across any UK sector, but the problem within the food industry is that it seems there could be a shortfall of around 140,000 workers by 2024 after the older elements of the workforce retire. There are a number of reasons for this trend, but it all comes down to the fact that the food and agricultural industry is not attracting and retaining sufficient numbers of employees, and this could cause a manpower shortage in the very near future unless the industry and the government recognise this approaching problem and takes drastic steps to reverse the current trend.
What is happening?
The food industry, on the whole, suffers from an unattractive public image. You cannot gloss up the fact that farm work, the hospitality industry, food production and all sundry supporting industries are generally seen as low paying sectors to work in. Due to this, and the fact that the actual work is perceived as hard, monotonous labour, working in the food production or ancillary industries is seen as an unattractive option for many UK workers, which leaves a massive gap in labour that needs to be filled.
Enter into the equation EU migrant workers, who are willing to work in these industries in order to earn British Sterling, which, despite the scaremongering is still one of the most powerful currencies in the world. A migrant is therefore incentivised to work hard for pounds in order to convert it into weaker Euros back in their home countries, which goes a long way towards supporting families elsewhere in the EU.
What is the problem?
The looming problem is that if you take EU migrants out of the equation, or even just lower their numbers slightly, the knock-on effect down the line becomes a significant problem for employers. Because UK nationals are not flocking to work on farms or in meat processing plants for a number of reasons there is simply not enough of a workforce available and trained up to replace the imminent retirees. Hence the predicted shortfall in numbers.
It is also far too simplistic to blame this situation entirely on Brexit either by saying that Brexit is depriving the UK of the EU migrants needed to work in the industry. Reliable statistics that aren’t heavily misleading or biased in the way that the samples are taken are hard to come by due to the nature of the topic, but it is a reasonable estimate that EU migrants only make up around 20% of the total food and agricultural industry workforce (depending on who’s statistic you believe the most). That means UK nationals must make up the largest remaining percentage.
So this is a lazy way of blaming a political occurrence on the failure of an industry. From a logical point of view when did migrants ever stop going to a country because of the political situation there? You only have to look around the world for a multitude of examples to see that if the money and opportunity is right the workforce will come. And seeing as the UK government has already said that legal migrants will be welcome in necessary industries, logic dictates that migrants will continue to be highly valued and welcomed in years to come. The real problem is that young people don’t see food manufacturing and agriculture as an attractive career choice.
Reasons for the unsustainable workforce
- The industry is seen as unattractive due to low wages: If you pay the absolute lowest wage that you can get away with then you need to expect reciprocal loyalty and retention – in other words, none. If you can lose your entire workforce over a 50p an hour wage increase then you cannot expect long-term loyalty from them.
- Unfulfilling job roles: This may be an unfair criticism of the industry, but surely the onus falls on the relevant businesses and industry groups to change this perception with the general public in order to entice the workforce of the future into the industry.
- Harsh working conditions: Working in food production facilities and on farms is seen as hard work for long hours at low wages, and this is largely true, although the same can be said about any other manufacturing concern in the world. So again, maybe industry leaders need to come together to have a rethink about how they can educate and persuade the next generation of workers that the food industry can provide a worthwhile future for a willing employee.
- Inaccessible locations, such as farms, that require travelling to: Maybe urban dwellers would consider fruit picking in rural areas if they could actually get there? Pay better wages, organise a staff bus to and from a city centre… sure, it is an expense to incur, but the alternative is far more expensive mechanisation or any number of other pricey options to ensure that there is a readily available workforce that can be reliably employed.
- Illegal and unscrupulous working practices of employers: This is where the government needs to get a grip on unscrupulous gangmasters and operations that have scant regard for human rights or fair and decent workplace practices. Nobody is going to stay in an industry till retirement if they can find more meaningful, safer and more comfortable employment elsewhere.
Businesses such as pubs and restaurants are notorious for abusing zero hour contracts that take advantage of an employees need for cash and willingness to help. Unpaid overtime, the absence of contracts and withholding final pay on unfair dismissals are common practice with many hospitality employers. Is it any wonder that students never choose to work for these businesses after they gain their degrees?
This is an industry timebomb in the making. Yes, Brexit may have a negative effect on the number of EU migrants available to work for cheap wages on farms, in factories and in the hospitality industry, but it is not the cause of this problem. One thing is for sure though, if leaders and businesses don’t start acknowledging that there is a staffing problem on the horizon and that a number of creative solutions need to be explored, then food production will suffer a severe manpower shortage in a few years time, the results of which may extremely unpalatable and painful to digest.
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