It would be logical to assume that most businesses waited for the Apprenticeship Levy before acting on it. But at Hitchen Foods in Wigan, they decided to move early.
The Bakkavor-owned firm worked on “Apprenticeship Levy-type qualifications” in advance of the Levy, which began on April 6, says group HR director Pippa Greenslade. And, as a result, 24 of its staff went through a level-two process improvement programme.
“We adopted the level of training that we will now be using under the Apprenticeship Levy, as a sort of trial,” Greenslade explains. “It has delivered financial savings for us. And just as excitingly, six of that group of 24 have since been promoted.”
Having worked in HR since leaving university, nurturing talent is clearly what makes Greenslade tick. In fact, her “absolute dream” is seeing someone join Bakkavor as an apprentice, go through a management programme, and end up in a senior role at the company.
However, achieving that on a regular basis within the food industry is no doubt more difficult than in most sectors.
Already challenged by the perception that there are limited opportunities for skills development, the industry now faces a potential labour shortage crisis as Brexit draws ever near.
In other words, being in charge of HR at one of the UK’s largest food companies in the present climate is far from a simple affair.
Greenslade joined Bakkavor in 2013, and in doing so, became responsible for the working lives of more than 16,000 people in the UK – spread across the chilled and ready meals specialist’s 30 domestic sites at 19 locations.
Impact on domestic labour supply (back to top)
Currently, an estimated 100,000 non-UK EU nationals work in the UK food sector. While Greenslade concedes that Brexit – and the impact on domestic labour supply should those workers lose their right to work in the UK – currently present a “couple of question-marks”, she prefers to focus on wider demographic trends.
“We know that there are certain dynamics in the labour market that affect all businesses. We have an ageing population, and young people are now faced with a huge number of choices when they leave school or university,” she says.
“People’s expectations of work are changing as well. They are looking for a degree of flexibility, whereas food manufacturing does have a certain rigidity about it. So, we have to learn to adapt to these trends.”
Greenslade acknowledges that her task as HR director is to continue to promote such opportunities, and she believes working closely with schools is an essential way of achieving this.
This is done in two ways – by encouraging each of Bakkavor’s sites to build direct relationships with schools in their locality, and by working with partners that offer school-based programmes.
“We work with the [grocery distribution think tank] IGD, which runs school-specific programmes that we are able to take content from. We also work with the Prince’s Trust, which has been great in partnering with schools on work skills,” she says.
“And it’s not just about the children – it’s getting the teachers and career counsellors to understand the opportunities as well.”
Bakkavor is equally active at graduate level, and offers work-placements and ‘taster’ days for university students. A number of universities are targeted, with Harper Adams in Shropshire and Sheffield Hallam ranking particularly highly.
The company also has a new campaign called 12 Ways To Grow, which highlights opportunities for both graduates and apprentices. In March, Bakkavor revealed it would take on 40 new apprentices this year in manufacturing, engineering, development and HR roles.
Take on 40 new apprentices (back to top)
“We’ve promoted the campaign on our website and on social media, and locally on places like bus stops and during radio broadcasts. It’s something we’re very proud of,” Greenslade says.
And, in what she describes as a “twist” to Bakkavor’s graduate recruitment programme, a couple of the 20 or so people taken on each year go on to work for the company’s Chinese business.
Despite the opportunities created by Bakkavor, there’s little doubt that it’s a challenging environment in which to recruit talent.
Greenslade describes it as a “very competitive pool”, and suggests the biggest industry shortfalls are occurring in technical and product development roles – a problem she believes hasn’t been helped by a reduction in available university places in these areas.
However, she is supportive of the government plan to create a new ‘T-level’ technology-based qualification, as part of its £500M annual investment pledge to fill the post-Brexit skills gap.
“Anything that helps us achieve exceptional quality post-school qualifications and skills training is absolutely what we need,” Greenslade enthuses.
“The other thing that is hugely important to me is to ensure that we get consistent linkage between school providers, the Department for Education, and business and industry providers. Employers need clarity on where to plug into the system.”
Greenslade concedes the Apprenticeship Levy – which requires employers to pay 0.5% of any wage bill over £3M – requires a “degree of resource” to deal with the administrative burden.
More positively, she says it has made Bakkavor “think more deeply” about how it uses skills to support career development. The trick, as she sees it, is to ensure maximum returns by partnering with the right people.
‘Establish great training providers’ (back to top)
“It’s important that we establish great training providers, and that’s in regard to the whole Trailblazers system. We’ve had a really good partnership with the National Centre for Food Manufacturing at the University of Lincoln, and we’ll be looking for more of the same.”
While there are clear grounds for optimism in developing industry talent, it is difficult to get away from how Brexit is likely to affect labour supply from the EU.
Greenslade believes the impact of Brexit is “difficult to predict”, but adds that her immediate concern has been to address the “unsettling” impact it has had on the sizeable number of non-UK EU nationals employed by the company.
“We have organised listening groups at six sites, just to understand how employees feel and what support they may find helpful.
“The feedback we are getting is that they are looking for clarity in terms of the future working rights of EU nationals, so I would argue we need that clarity as soon as possible.”
Until that happens, she says it is business as usual in her quest to attract the best people to Bakkavor, and to the food industry.
“The market is tough, but if I was to give myself a challenge, it would be to talk about the food industry as a great place to work, a place where you can join at multiple levels and build your career, and a place that enables people to move across functions in a way that wouldn’t necessarily happen in other sectors.”
Very few recruiting in the same labour market would disagree with that.
JOB TITLE: Group HR director, Bakkavor Group
PREVIOUS ROLES: Greenslade joined Bakkavor in 2013 having been in HR all her working life. She started at Cadbury (then Cadbury Schweppes) on a graduate trainee scheme, having graduated from the University of Durham with a BA in psychology.
During her lengthy stint at Cadbury, Greenslade worked her way up to regional HR director roles, based in the UK and overseas.
Prior to joining Bakkavor, she was global HR director at the British Council. Greenslade is also a trustee at the Whitehall & Industry Group, which promotes the exchange of knowledge between government, private and voluntary sectors.
AWAY FROM WORK: Greenslade “absolutely adores” travelling, and claims to take any opportunity to do so when it arises. She is also a trustee of two charities – Christian Aid and the Cardinal Hume Centre, which supports the homeless.