Harvesting Tomorrow’s Skills (HTS) which is funded by Invest Northern Ireland, is a two-year programme which supports the targets identified in the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s ‘Going for Growth’ action plan – specifically recruiting an additional 15,000 people to the sector by 2020.
Invest NI has offered £169,400 to support the HTS network which, led by NI Food & Drink Association (NIFDA) is focussed on improving knowledge, addressing the skills gap and enhancing the sector’s career appeal to young people.
Businesses participating in the network include Dunbia, Thompsons, Linden Foods, Mash Direct and Moy Park.
Targeting SMEs in particular, the network will engage with stakeholders such as schools, colleges, local councils and business support organisations to collaboratively tackle the skills deficit.
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The initiative stems from a six month consultation with the sector – also supported by Invest NI and led by NIFDA - which clearly identified skills gaps, a lack of training, and negative perceptions of the food & drink sector as major stumbling blocks.
47% of employers surveyed said they were unable to recruit staff with the required level of skills, while 56% of school-leavers stated they were completely unaware of the range of career opportunities available across the sector.
Harry Hamilton is project facilitator of HTS and believes a collaborative, industry-led approach is necessary to tackle the skills gap issue head on.
He said: “As Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, the priority is to attract real talent to our food and drink sector. We also need to develop a people pipeline across all levels and abilities which will ensure the sector’s long term viability.”
With uncertainty regarding Brexit also impacting agri-food industries, Harry highlighted the need to change mind-set: “Misconceptions about the sector such as low pay, poor conditions, production line and shift work are hurdles which must be overcome.
“In reality the industry offers an array of options, competitive salaries and career development opportunities. HTS aims to convince people with different skills and aptitudes, including those with business acumen and leadership potential that the agri-food sector is the right choice.”
HTS will collaborate with the industry to champion investment in training so those already working in the sector are upskilled, motivated and committed to it for the long term, as well as engaging with the appropriate educational providers.
Niall Casey, Invest NI’s Director of Skills & Competitiveness, said: “A well trained workforce is critical to any business growth. The food and drink manufacturers participating in the Harvesting Tomorrow’s Skills network are focused on addressing the areas which can help safeguard the future development of our agri food industry.
“Invest NI’s funding through our Collaborative Growth Programme will help the companies and stakeholders involved to collectively explore ways to scope and exploit opportunities to enhance their competitive edge.”
Tracy Hamilton of Mash Direct, which is participating in the network said: “Attracting and retaining high calibre, ambitious people is essential for the life-blood of the sector.
“We welcome this new initiative and would encourage SMEs to get on-board.
“Collaboratively we will have more impact and not only boost our individual businesses, but help the wider industry meet its full potential.”