Every time I talk to poultry meat business leaders and ask what their biggest challenges are, labour shortage always falls in the top two. Our labour force keeps shrinking as businesses just can’t get enough people.

British poultry meat sector has grown significantly, beyond the UK labour availability in the areas we operate. In most areas, the unemployment rate remains negligible, which means we have vacancies that can’t be filled by British workers. 60% of our workforce (22,800 people) are EU nationals who ensure safe, nutritious and affordable food for all.

The current immigration proposals don’t recognise the real needs of our industry. Limiting access to labour has the potential to cripple food businesses and make access to quality British food very hard for everyone. The tightening of immigration policies have already forced wages up and put increasing pressure on food producers to do more with less.

Driving production into the digital age
British poultry meat industry is doing everything it can to move away from reliance on immigration. Our businesses are investing in staff retention, productivity, technology and automation.

If you’ve ever toured a chicken packing plant, you would’ve seen it run like a well-oiled machine. There’s a machine that sorts the cuts and moves them to specific conveyor belts, and another that weighs and packages them, and gets them ready to be shipped. I find it incredibly fascinating to see the pick-and-place robots in action and observe the line workers interact with machines in real time.

While our industry is investing in technological solutions to drive productivity and efficiency, now is the time to fully explore innovative ways to bring in a whole suite of new technologies that will drive poultry meat production into the digital age.

Our businesses have some concrete investment plans in place. However, an investment programme of this scale will take at least five years to complete and it can’t reasonably keep pace with the fundamental changes in labour supply. Our sector needs Government’s support to enable us to drive innovation that keeps pace with the shrinking labour market.

We are calling on the Government to sponsor the development of a ‘Food Productivity and Automation Allowance’ which can be used to support automation in our sector through the provision of fiscal allowances and financial support. This will help unleash our potential and help British food production flourish post-Brexit.

Technology can’t fully replace human skills
While technology will certainly reduce the need for non-UK labour in the long term, it cannot fully bridge the skills gap. In the next decade, we will see autonomous robots take a lot of the hard, repetitive work out of food production, but they simply can’t replace the need for human skills.

Our sector has jobs that need human judgement, instinct, expertise and skills. Jobs that support our economy and communities, and that ensure everyone has access to British food produced to British standards. One of our next challenges will be creating the right mix of technology and skills that drives productivity and puts food on every table.

This column was first published in the March edition of Meat Management magazine.