How does the development our industry ensure good outcomes for consumers and communities alike?

A combination of a declining workforce and productivity stasis is lethal, not least with a cost of production crisis on our hands. There is no shying away from a drop in output and overall stagnancy if a national industrial strategy does not capture investment in agriskills whilst patching up holes in immigration, particularly if striving for self-sufficiency is Government’s key objective for food and farming as part of the ‘green transition.’

Following recommendations outlined in the Independent Review of Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain, our questions is whether this Government wants a poultry industry or not. Saying that, this is a problem that does not discriminate. That there is a people shortage and barriers to investment is a dilemma felt across most sectors. As a result, the conversation appears to be caught in a hamster wheel of pitting people against productivity: how do we get more people in work, and/or how do we lean into digitisation and automation to do more with less? Then we never arrive at a conclusion because, let’s be honest, this oversimplifies the problem.

Of course, some sort of industrial blueprint is going to go a long way in addressing problems underpinning labour and skills. This hardly Levelling Up (Round II) but an approach that gives businesses the tools to drive productivity themselves: loans, schemes, and inclusive training programmes that aim to integrate businesses further into local economies and support them in bolstering local communities. That requires Government to engage with industry and businesses to identify what changes are needed, and, secondly, how these changes can be delivered in a way that shapes a prosperous future for national poultry meat supply chains.

On an industry note, rather than wrestling with “how we recruit and retain,” I think it would be productive to try and come at labour and skills by thinking about “who?” – in poultry meat production and beyond. As everyone is getting excited about the role of artificial intelligence and pivoting towards digitisation as part of the ‘green transition’ I think this presents an opportunity for industry to reflect on the purpose of work first, and the place of technology second. In a stable, if not thriving, green economy, who is work for?

The number of jobs is one thing but so is the nature of work, particularly given that there is no real linearity to technological progress. It looks different at different points of the supply chain (from farm to factory to warehouse). Moreover, the influence of cost, market conditions and the capabilities of the tech itself cannot be underestimated. We are talking about implementing innovation into the everyday-ness of the workplace; the opportunities and constraints are massively influenced by geographical and infrastructural dynamics. So, in that sense, the questions we need to be asking are how technologies are changing and informing skills profiles? What training needs do businesses have to meet? How are different points of the supply chain engaging in digitisation? How do we ensure the best outcomes for local labour markets? Do shifts look different if the speed of work is changing? Where do we need to rewrite health and safety manuals, or risk policies?

Securing a pipeline of talent that has clear purpose is fundamental to productivity and from there to a truly sustainable food system – one that feeds people, tackles social inequalities with quality and affordable food, and ensures a liveable climate for all. Poultry is half the meat the nation eats. How does the development our industry ensure good outcomes for consumers and communities alike? What do we need to do to co-ordinate skills development whilst ensuring workers meet industry requirements?

These are huge questions, particularly for a sector that has historically relied on a lot of manual labour but recognises the opportunities that technology brings. That recognition shows just how the dialogue on labour and skills has to be embedded alongside that of productivity and what we want UK food to achieve. By thinking across different Government departments, social groups, and communities we can work together to get a better understanding of, if not shape, the future of what work looks like.

Article first published in Meat Management magazine.