Travelling throughout the UK to promote the Fresh Careers Fair – the brand new recruitment event for the horticulture and agriculture sectors of the UK production, foodservice, retail, culinary and wholesale industries that will be held on March 10 in London – has been an incredible eye-opening experience.
I’ve been warmly welcomed by a variety of schools from sixth-form to PhD programmes, all of whom were enthusiastic to learn about what the fresh produce industry has to offer. Many of these students were exposed to the industry for the first time and learned that our industry is so much more than grower tans and muddy boots.
Agriculture is in my DNA. I grew up on an organic farm, I went to an agriculture-focused university and I even let the industry draw me back in after a short sabbatical. When you have a passion for food you can’t help but want to share this amazing industry with young prospective talent.
When introducing the Fresh Careers Fair I start with facts about our “humble” industry. In the UK, the agri-food sector contributed £103 billion or 7.6% to the national Gross Value Added sector in 2013, and contributed £3.8 billion (13%) to the nation’s employment statistics in 2014. That’s a serious “mic-drop” moment for students who’ve never even considered the massive industry that operates behind a salad.
Ag industry stereotypes can easily be overcome
It’s amusing to see reactions from students, who study generalised topics like international business and languages, that have never heard of our industry. I’ve found that those with some idea of the fresh produce industry are typically at PhD level and have immediately ruled it out because of a stigma in the UK that the industry is too “blue collar”.
Most students are only exposed to common career choices, such as: finance, business, science and law. Fortunately, all of these focuses are applicable and definitely required in the fresh produce industry.
For those of us lucky enough to work in it, the industry is a tight-knit family of innovative business people who, in my experience, genuinely care for the wellbeing and growth of their employees and their companies. I do not believe our industry has an issue with employee retention; our struggle is more of an education about who we are in order to attract desirable candidates. Frankly, as the industry becomes more technologically sophisticated we need a larger talent pool to satisfy emerging demands.
Unlike in other traditional markets, the interview process in the fresh produce industry is extremely humanised. Computer-driven application processes frustrate students, as they are often eliminated via email before they ever have the chance to speak to a human. In contrast, the fresh produce industry is all about the personal connection, and from day one it focuses on employee retention and development. A work-life balance is valued and instead of taking a gap year, recent graduates can enter a career in a flexible, fast-paced industry.
Once aware, students are attracted by the opportunities
On our Fresh Careers Fair tour we’ve visited a cross-section of universities, schools and colleges to speak to students at various education levels. We’ve learned we are mostly an unknown entity but once we introduced students to the complexity of the industry and various entry points offered their eyes have been opened to the opportunities that lie outside traditional agriculture stereotypes. Once exposed, prospective employees from outside of a traditional agriculture background see executive-level opportunities in the fresh produce industry that excite them.
Aside from celebrity chefs, the industry doesn’t appear glamorous but, in fact, it’s a well-kept secret. Young people have more responsibility in entry-level positions and can often travel the world before their thirtieth birthday.
That being said, it’s not all fun and games. We have serious issues that are facing us as an industry and, if we’re not careful, there’ll be nobody to solve them. From sustainability to food waste and overpopulation, these issues among others will be inherited by the next generation. It’s important for businesses to recognise this and to seek a broad talent pool from various educational backgrounds to meet those demands.
I’ve met many young students over the past few weeks that are excited to attend the Fresh Careers Fair. I invite you to embrace them and meet with them – they are likely to be our next generation of leaders in the fresh produce industry.
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