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Why don’t people want to work in the food and fibre sector?

It’s a question the Food and Fibre CoVE team is regularly asked, and it’s not a simple one to answer. To some degree it depends on which age group you are trying to attract, and on the other hand which industry is trying to do the attracting.

Evidence suggests that older candidates someone who has been out of school for a while, with commitments will require certainty of income. On the other hand, the current crop of school leavers Generation Z (GenZ) bring a completely different perspective. Madison Pannett, a 2021 Kellogg Scholar noted in her report that GenZ are motivated by environmental issues and their ability to make a bigger difference to them. She concludes, a job should be spoken about in terms of how it fits into the bigger picture, particularly regarding global warming, rather than simply financial or economic terms. 

The need for regular and consistent work challenges those from industries (most) where there is a large seasonal element. On the other hand, GenZ want things which for many of the sector’s employers, will seem completely out of touch with their day to day reality, but should they though?  

Beyond the weekly paycheque, and rather than being seen as having no regard for the people it requires in order to be successful, how does an industry that has a significant seasonal need, meet the needs of those who want certainty of regular, well paid and on-going work? One possible answer is to stop viewing your business from within an industry silo and look at it as a constituent part of the wider food and fibre sector. When you apply this logic, you begin a cooperative process, working with employers from other food and fibre industries to share the talent pool available. This of course provides a challenge to the vocational education system which historically responded to the siloed thinking of the sector’s constituent industries and created qualifications, that generally, credential people inside the silos. This has been recognised as being self-defeating and will, I am confident, change over the next few years.  

Now let’s take a look at the GenZ question. Is this really a problem or is the issue the attitude of industry, rather than the young people we need to want to be involved in food and fibre? The sector needs more people, partly due to the pace of change it is facing as environmental concerns, consumer attitudes and needs of the sector evolve (Madison Pannett). With this in mind, surely employers would be enthusiastic toward accommodating GenZ thinking in order to be more attractive to the people, with the mindset that reflects the customers they are growing their products for?  

I said at the outset the question is not easy to answer but if the food and fibre sector is to successfully attract its share of talent from the limited pool available, then old school thinking needs to be set aside while fresh approaches such as those outlined here need to be found.  

Paul Hollings is the General Manager at Food & Fibre CoVE

Posted as LinkedIn article 16 January 2023