Home: Issue 1 2010 › Cover Story › Working together
02/07/2010 | Channel:
Drinks, Retail, Manufacturer, Equipment, Human Resources
The food and beverage sector is a major
contributor to the UK’s success, and deserves more
recognition. Jack Matthews, CEO of Improve, tells
Libbie Hammond about waking the sleeping giant
As businesses look for ways to improve productivity and become more efficient, the issue of staff training often comes to the fore. Do you cut the money allocated to human resources, or is now the time to spend?
From looking at recent survey figures, the latter option brings the most benefits. One study revealed that 88 per cent of respondents reported that investing in training improved quality in products and services, while 85 per cent reported improved productivity. Eighty-two per cent saw improved staff retention. In times as tough as these, employers should seriously be looking at their training offering and how it can be enhanced.
This is where Improve comes in. Improve is the licensed sector skills council for the UK food and drink sector. It is one of 25 Sector Skills Councils established by the government to take the lead in driving up skills in the workplace, to promote higher productivity and stronger competitiveness for UK businesses in the global market.
Jack Matthews is the chief executive officer of Improve – his background is somewhat unique as, in a former role, he was director of operations for the Sector Skills Development Agency, the vehicle responsible for setting up the Sector Skills Councils. “Five years ago I was asked by the current chairman of Improve if I wanted to put my money where my mouth was, and actually run one of these organisations,” he said, opening our conversation with a smile. “Improve covers food and drink manufacturing, processing, wholesaling, packaging and bottling and specialist food retail. We have just been relicensed for another five years, and the judging panel indicated that Improve came out in the scale at the top end of good towards outstanding, which delighted me as it reflects the hard work of both my staff and also employers across the sector.”
The food and drink sector doesn’t always get the recognition it deserves, and when Jack went into more detail it is easy to see why he considers the sector a ‘sleeping giant’. “If you look at our food chain footprint, which stretches from the farm gate all the way to the retailers, then you are talking about a sector that employs over 2.1 million staff.
“The reason that I call it a sleeping giant is because the UK food and drink sector
has invested tremendously in the skills base of its staff and employees but the sector still remains under the radar. Giving that recognition to the sector is something I regard as a key deliverable of Improve. We have a really dynamic sector, it just has to be awoken.”
He continued: “We’re looking to develop a process for recognising employer delivered training and how it can make a contribution to a qualification. If we can start to address that then I think it would be a huge move forward.”
In fact, raising awareness of the importance of the UK food and drink sector is a subject very dear to Jack’s heart. He said: “One of my bugbears is that the food sector is not recognised by the Government. I would dearly like to see the Government recognising that the food and drink sector as an important contributor to the UK economy - it is recognised across the world as being a leader. We have to continuously push hard to be recognised for what we do and I just feel that the Government just does not appreciate fully what it has in our sector.”
Moving onto Improve, Jack describes the organisation as ‘the voice of employers on skills and skills issues’ and credits this employer involvement as the source of the organisation’s success. “I would say that we are fully employer led in all our activities. In effect, Improve is owned by the sector. We represent employers across the food supply chain, in terms of the development of common standards, frameworks and qualifications. Part of our business purpose, and articles of execution, is that we engage with employers at all levels and we communicate to the sector and the general public on skills issues. We also act as a front man for our sector on influencing the Government policy and funding on skills.”
Such is the close relationship between Improve and employers that they worked together to create the Sector Skills Agreements (SSAs). Jack explained: “The SSAs are really our activity plans, which set out how we are going to address skills issues and gaps across the sector. These SSAs are created solely on the basis of what employers have clearly stated and demonstrated that they need.”
The SSAs then drive the qualifications framework, and Improve’s engagement in the development of new qualifications. “Developing the SSAs has enabled us to provide the necessary business case for the creation of our National Skills Academy,” Jack added.
“The National Skills Academy is the delivery arm of Improve, and is a wholly owned subsidiary. In the two years the National Skills Academy has been in operation, we have achieved 18,000 new learners, and perhaps more significantly, we have revised the apprenticeships programmes across the food and drink sector, which previously were not really being used. On the higher-level skills side, such as food scientists and technologists, we have managed to persuade the supply side (colleges and universities) to reverse the decline in food science programmes. When Improve first began, one in four science and technology roles was permanently vacant across the food and drink sector but the work of Improve and employers has helped to start towards a reduction of that to one in three.”
Jack describes the qualifications framework as helping Improve to create a ‘common currency’. “This means employers can say: ‘I have great faith in these qualifications as I know they have been devised by employers to meet my specific needs’. And that’s at the heart of the qualifications framework.”
A new innovative family of qualifications that has been designed by Improve is based on something that Jack calls the ‘unit based plug and play award’, which was created in response to sector demand, and offers a very flexible approach. “This flexibility means the individual gains skills and competence, and the employer gains an immediate return on investment. The employee can accumulate units of learning and proficiency that build up to a full qualification, so there is something in
it for both the employer and the employee, which we have not had before,” said Jack.
Employers are looking for a diverse set of skills, but as Jack highlighted, they are all keen to find individuals who have or are willing to gain knowledge of how their particular business works. “Everyone is looking for this flexible, adaptable person,” he said. “For example, a major cereals manufacturer in the East Midlands had spent a significant amount of money on a new production line. He was able to use our modular approach to build what he called ‘an exceptional skill base’. It’s ‘exceptional’ because when a problem arose, everyone on that production line could use their improved skills and knowledge to solve the problem as quickly as possible, and company profits on that process rose as a result.”
The flexible, adaptable person that employers are looking for becomes of greater importance when the wider economic situation is taken into account. “One of our key sector drivers is the pace of food inflation and the impact it has on factory gate prices, and inevitably on the bottom line,” said Jack. “The potential squeeze between price and profit margins by the large multiples is never going to go away, therefore we have to continue to look at how we can improve the effectiveness of production and increases in gross value added per head. This means having the skills in the workforce that can handle increasing globalisation, reduce production costs, and increase productivity.”
However, it isn’t altogether straightforward, as Jack explained: “We have to manage the tensions between what employers are after and what the Government is after. We are wedded to the demand side, but we have to work within the policy framework that delivers nationally recognised qualifications. The government wants a tangible return on public expenditure on skills, which requires results that are measurable and quantifiable, based on the number of national qualifications started and completed. The problem is that this perpetuates the dominance of the public educational system and the supply driven approach. It doesn’t allow the market or the needs of industry to determine the supply of skills. That is where the SSCs come in and wherever practicable and appropriate, we reform the public education system to become demand driven. It’s really important for us to ensure that we continue to deliver what employers are demanding and we are not sucked into accepting what the supply side is offering.”
Nevertheless, Jack was quick to point out that the Government does pay attention to what employers are saying. “They listen particularly to well informed employers, and that is why up-to-date labour market intelligence and insight from Improve is so valuable. And without a shadow of a doubt, influence and success comes from hard evidence that proves why reform should happen.”
Sustainability is one area where the Government is making proposals that Jack has welcomed. Responding to environment minister Hilary Benn’s announcement of a major review of the long-term security and sustainability of the UK’s food supply, Jack called the step ‘positive’ and was ‘encouraged by the scope of the government’s vision’.
He told me: “Global warming is going to have a serious impact on food production, and therefore securing the lines of food security is going to be very important. I think the workforce is going to be a prime contributor in achieving the maximum protection for the UK food and drink economy.
“The sustainability agenda is going to continue to grow across our sector and we are going to have to look very closely at delivering the skills, which allow companies to meet what may be increasing compliance and regulatory standards, as well as meeting competitive advantage objectives.
“We have got to look at sustainability skills, not just to address the environmental impact but to address it in such a way that food and drink companies in the sector are actually gaining a bottom line benefit. We have got to address all the issues around the area of sustainability, such as waste management, water management, biowaste, energy efficiency, food miles and so forth.”
Jack continued with further areas that will become increasingly significant to the food and drink sector: “For me it comes down to lean and advanced manufacturing, which are a must over the next five years. We also have to ensure that the food supply chain is working to a common set of standards so that everyone in the chain is confident that their suppliers are doing everything possible on the skills front.
“I think that we have got to attract really talented people into the sector and we have got to create a workforce development programme that enables people to continuously improve skills and contribute to their company and sector.”
Jack concluded: “Food and drink companies should also look at their existing workforces, because 80 per cent of those who are in work in the sector at the moment, will still be in work in ten years’ time. On that basis we are going to get the biggest productivity hike and the biggest contribution to the bottom line from the existing workforce. My advice is look at how your investment in the existing workforce cannot just deliver immediate skills, but also future skills.”