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Paul Wilkinson, Chairman of Improve, the food and drink Sector Skills Council (SSC), spoke at the group's first annual meeting, saying that the food and drink industry was the largest sector in UK manufacturing and that the industry was performing well despite competition from tiger economies.

The chairman pointed out that the UK's continued success was largely due to the skilled workforce. Mr Wilkinson spoke of his belief in the skills of the sector, saying: "Skills in their widest sense have been important in this success; indeed the most recent survey on global productivity in food and drink puts the UK second only to Canada when allowances for capital resources are included in the measure. So we start in good shape; our challenge is to stay ahead".

Mr Wilkinson stressed that the country's food manufacturing industry would need to maintain and improve its performance in the face of stiffening competition from many quarters, citing examples of competition from Brazil and New Zealand. The role of the World Trade Organisation and the subsidies and quotas systems were also acknowledged as having a major impact on productivity and profitability.

The Danger Ahead

"The danger for our industry here in the UK is that we get picked off at the edges," warned the chairman, "which erodes the critical mass and eventually causes much more damage to the overall competitive position. For example, in ambient foods, especially those where the supply chain costs when combined with cheaper and sometimes subsidised raw material costs apply, here the threat is very real."

The speech also emphasised the positives, stressing the need for improved skills and productivity which can only be achieved by better training and business practices. The crucial issue, as he sees it, is the migration of young students away from manufacturing to other career paths. Mr Wilkinson believes: "It has to start at school; we want to get kids to think that having a career "making things" is once again fashionable. Forget media studies, retailing, and communications or IT. This is why we are leading the new 14-19 Diploma in Manufacturing in our schools. We need the best from the education sector to work in our industry."

Key Points on Movement

The key point of the speech was in identifying that the UK has moved away from a manufacturing culture to a service based culture. In recent times UK manufacturing firms have either gone bust, relocated overseas or been taken over by foreign companies. The consequence of this trend has been that students are now reluctant to learn manufacturing skills, which they feel will not give them access to a successful career.

The work done by the SSCs, who are working with employers to improve skills, has gone some way to addressing this migration, but economic factors such as cheap overseas labour and looser regulation will mean that British workers will need to offer expertise rather than compete on cost. The trend for businesses to relocate in Asia is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; therefore the best way for the UK to be competitive is in the provision of high quality products and excellent workers. This can only be achieved, as Mr Wilkinson shrewdly observed, by investing in the workforce and first class training.

Dan Atkinson

Do you agree with Mr. Wilkinson? Tell us in the FE Blog

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