Skills Snapshot – Opportunities and challenges for the agri-food sector

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This second snapshot from our Local Skills Report examines the demand for skills in Norfolk & Suffolk’s agri-food sector and how that might be met.

In 2017, New Anglia LEP commissioned a series of sector skills plans, providing more nuanced and in depth analysis as to the potential scale and nature of skills demand, linked to future growth in what we termed the ‘agri-food’ sector. This definition encompassed a broader base of data, that reflected the sectors significance across the entire supply chain and related activities – excluding food retail. We felt this was an important element to highlight as the findings of this research contrast with the growth profiles for the narrower definition of ‘agriculture, food & tobacco’ sector contained in this report’s core indicator analysis.

Norfolk and Suffolk’s Agri-food Tech sector (excluding food retail and catering) generated 7% of the area’s GVA and employ 50,000 staff or 7.4% of the workforce — double the national average. It also accounts for 10.8% of all businesses in the LEP area. Meeting growth projections in relation to associated skills supply is likely to be more challenging as a result of Brexit, which looks set to increase restrictions on labour supply in the near term, and lead to a subsequent increase in labour costs. Locally we have already seen bonus structures put into place in the food processing sector in order to meet the increased Christmas demands.

New technology and specifically data, sensors and automation (Industry 4.0), is likely to have a major impact on the industry and will require new skills amongst the existing workforce and new recruits as ways of working change. Work has begun on a £25m project to build the world’s largest vertical farm in Norfolk — aiming to blaze a trail for sustainable food production. The site, currently under construction at the Food Enterprise Park at Easton, will create 25,000sqm of stacked growing space for salad leaves, herbs and other fresh produce for supermarkets. Fischer Farms, the company behind the project, claims it will be able to produce the same amount of food in its four-acre building as would be possible on 1,000 acres of conventional British farmland.

Locally the skills system is good at meeting FE and postgraduate training needs but has a significant deficit in undergraduate skills provision. This is very relevant to future sector growth as forecasts show that the proportion of sector staff employed in elementary occupations has already fallen from 26% in 2004 to 15% in 2014, with a further fall to 13% predicted by 2024. In contrast, the proportion in skilled trades has risen from 40% in 2004 to 58% in 2014 and is expected to reach 59% by 2024. The projections also suggest the largest demand for new staff, 6,700 over the period 2014-’24, will be for those qualified to QCF4-6, the level at which the New Anglia area currently has very little training provision.

City College Norwich has been consulting representatives from the sector in order to develop the curriculum delivered locally. This initial project funding has been provided by Norfolk County Council. Subsequent work will be carried out as part of the ESF Curriculum Development programme which looks at the curriculum for 5 of our key sectors to ensure local provision is fit for purpose for employers in the region.

In addition, Forestry England manages 19,000ha of forest in and around Thetford. A key revenue-generating part of its business
is felling trees for wholesale use, while maintaining an active re-planting schedule so that it’s entirely cyclical. It has an intrinsic
role in protecting the local environment, biodiversity and thus sustainability, putting climate change at very much at the forefront
of its work.

The organisation has just launched a ‘Thetford Forest Resilience Programme’ which is a wide-ranging programme of activity aimed at future-proofing the forest against potential threats like invasive species, the visitor economy and of course, climate change. It also operates skills programmes that revolve around forestry careers.

Read our Agri-food Tech Skills Plan here

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