Twenty-first century FoodSkills provision

Nutrition & Food Science

ISSN: 0034-6659

Article publication date: 1 August 2001



Cousins, S.J. (2001), "Twenty-first century FoodSkills provision", Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 31 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2001, MCB UP Limited

Twenty-first century FoodSkills provision

Twenty-first century FoodSkills provision


At 10.15 on the morning of Friday 29 September 2000 the Millennium Building at Otley College was packed in anticipation of Richard Ayre, Board Member of the Foods Standards Agency, opening a Centre of Excellence for FoodSkills in the country.

Three months later, this article contemplates the development of the FoodSkills Centre from concept and design, through to course delivery and future incentives, with the aim of supporting regional business and meeting the needs of a rapidly developing industry.

Concept and design

Key, regional research led to the concept of a FoodSkills Centre being developed. The East of England Skills Strategy Annex 2 identified issues such as limited access to Education and Training facilities in rural areas, below national average attainment of NVQ levels 3 and 4 and lack of training provision by small firms including for managers and professionals. A total of 70 per cent of employees in small firms (1-24) predominating in Agriculture, Construction and Business Services believe that their managers need to improve their skills in relation to IT, Business Planning and Marketing according to the Suffolk TEC Employer survey. The Business Strategies report for the Eastern TECs also identified that the predicted demand for managers and proprietors in Agriculture and Services over 1997-2002 is actually four times the supply of the Further Education provision.

The FoodSkills Centre at Otley College aims to fill that provision with dedicated, professional tutors providing training in state-of-the-art facilities.

The Eastern region is an up-and-coming commodity with development of "IP-City" (the communications highway) and many new business incentives with the assistance of EEDA. Otley College itself has done extensive work with the Single Regeneration Bid Project to provide IT training in rural areas.

The fresh produce sector in the eastern region currently employs 17 per cent of the workforce and approximately 38 per cent of the region's employment is in sectors relating to fresh food production such as distribution, landbased engineering and support services.

The fresh produce industry has an image of a traditional sector, characterised by low pay and poor conditions of work, compounded by negative associations from animal health and welfare, according to the "Food and Drink in the East of England Issues of Employment" Report in June 1997. The competitiveness of the whole industry has been affected by these issues, contributing to major skills gaps being created by the Agriculture and Food Production industry's tendency to recruit unskilled school leavers.

With changes in skills requirements, globalisation of the food supply chain and issues such as food safety, quality and traceablity, the fresh produce sector faces many problems for which it needs discerning, forward-thinking, skilled personnel and resources to solve these problems – personnel which the FoodSkills Centre will help develop.

Otley College

Otley College has established expertise in the land-based industries of East Anglia and has gained a reputation for quality development of the delivery of training at all levels in agriculture and horticulture and in specialist fields including agritronics and land-based engineering. The college's own Centre of Excellence for land-based engineering was opened in September 1999 and incorporates an extensive computer suite.

Employer forum

The college has traditionally always held strong links with associated Food Cluster groups such as Tastes of Suffolk and later on provided a base for Tastes of Anglia within the college campus. With these historic links and an established understanding of the food supply chain, the college was in a unique position to facilitate the formation of the "Employer forum" – a partnership of employers, education and training providers and government representatives who would collectively manage the FoodSkills project drawing on the resource base gained from the expertise of the group.

Members of the employee forum include: Quantum Tern, Grampian Country Foods, Tastes of Anglia, Morley Research, English Country Herbs, Bramfield Meats, St Peter's Brewery, Christian Salvesen, Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust, Suffolk Coastal District Council, ITE Ltd, STS Ltd, LANTRA, Meat East Anglia, Otley and Orwell Training Ltd, Megaskills Ltd, Degem Systems Ltd, Stoke Farm Apples, Country Nibbles, Muntons, Darby Brothers, Frozen Herbs Ltd, the Business Link Regional Supply Network, the Agricultural Advisory Council, Farmers Markets and Colleges.

The EEDA project

A successful bid was secured by the Employer Forum in May 1999 in response to EEDA's (East of England Development Agency) Skills Development Funding to "pump-prime" the provision of a hi-tech food skills centre to be based at Otley College. EEDA provided half the necessary funding with the remainder coming from matched funding from within the Employer Forum. The project was thus funded £466,000 by EEDA and £481,000 by the Employer Forum. The project had five main objectives:

  1. 1.

    To provide a regional centre for skills development and technical support serving the agriculture and primary food production sectors.

  2. 2.

    To improve the competitiveness of the rural economy in the Eastern region by promoting collaboration and partnership between industry, research, business support organisations and training providers operating in the fresh produce sector.

  3. 3.

    To support SMEs in agriculture and food production in the development, marketing, storage, packaging and distribution of added value products.

  4. 4.

    To ensure the responsiveness of training provision to the needs of the industry by researching and analysing skills needs.

  5. 5.

    To further develop the support infrastructure available to landbased industries in the Eastern Region.

The design and build of the FoodSkills Centre was undertaken with extensive advice, guidance and support from the Food Industry and Food Education authorities in order to provide a specialist, high-tech facility that met Industry standards. Members of the Employer Forum travelled to visit a number of facilities throughout the UK and Northern Ireland to identify, discuss and incorporate "best practice" within the design specification which has resulted in the unique building we have today.

This consultation and collaboration resulted in the centre being specifically constructed with a wide range of facilities designed to support the needs of the food chain, namely:

  • a comprehensive marketing suite providing high-tech facilities such as food photography, label design software, consumer research data and the like;

  • a product development laboratory where an extensive range of equipment is able to support the design and development of new products, shelf-life testing and cooking evaluation;

  • a process hall, which is capable of offering "scale-up facilities", high/low risk manufacturing and a variety of packaging options;

  • a laboratory with a range of facilities in chemical and microbiological testing;

  • a lecture theatre for teaching, seminars and workshops; and

  • fully networked computer access throughout the centre enabling the integrated development and management of technical information via software developed by QSA and e-mail and Internet access developed via the Otley College systems.

While the Employer Forum have overseen the successful design and build of the FoodSkills Centre they have also undertaken and managed the following initiatives within the EEDA project:

  • Developed a Higher National Certificate (HNC) course in food production and marketing which has run as a pilot in a major food company to upskill the management team. The course is now running as a part-time day release course at Otley College.

  • Designed and achieved validation of a BSc food production course.

  • Developed CD-ROM learning materials to support basic inductions to new starters within the food industry and for candidates working towards their NVQ Level 2 in Food, Drink and Meat Manufacturing.

Case study on Fisher Chilled Foods as an illustration

Employing 240 people, Fisher Chilled Foods, (part of the Albert Fisher Group) at Wisbech, is responsible for producing prepared fruits for the fresh chilled retail and food service market. The company is committed to meeting the most stringent quality standards.

The manufacturing process is reliant on a well-trained, semi-skilled workforce, undertaking a range of manual and semi-automated selection of peeling and chopping facilities. In congruence with most areas of the food industry the staff turnover had been quite high and the company set about seeking a means of motivating and developing the workforce in efforts to retain a higher proportion of skilled employees.

In partnership with a local training organisation, STS, and the FoodSkills team at Otley College a training plan was designed to help increase their staff's knowledge while also providing a nationally recognised qualification in order to fulfil the objective of increasing staff retention.

The FoodSkills and STS staff were able to draw on European Social Funding to provide opportunities for the staff to participate in an NVQ programme leading towards the "Food and Drink Manufacturing Operations Level 2 NVQ". The funding additionally enabled the delivery of an extensive food hygiene and health and safety programme, which resulted in the achievement of 56 basic food hygiene and 32 health and safety awards.

The participation in the programmes was completely voluntary but to date more than 70 people have enrolled throughout the company. A pilot group of ten operatives worked closely with the FoodSkills assessors to establish a functional model for Fisher Chilled Foods' own staff to perpetuate. Two assessors from Fisher Chilled Foods are currently working towards their D32/33 Assessors Awards in order to support the continuous delivery of the NVQ programmes at the Wisbech site. It is hoped that aspiring supervisors and team leaders will complete their NVQ 3 qualifications in the future to sustain the development of the company.

Fisher Chilled Foods were so delighted at the success of the training programme that they have devised in-house training documentation to reflect and support the NVQ requirements and hope to incorporate the training package as part of an induction programme for all new employees.

The extent of analysis of employee retention will be completed in the fullness of time but it has been noted that there has been an immediate impact on staff morale and a waiting list has had to be introduced because of the enthusiastic demand for training from the employees. Ultimately, by investing in their employees, Fisher Chilled Foods will not fail to benefit from an increasingly developed, highly trained, multi-skilled workforce who are continually motivated and consistently quality-focused.

Working with businesses and enhancing partnerships

The FoodSkills Centre is currently running a course for farmers to develop their IT skills in conjunction with the Farm Diversification Project.

Current commercial endeavours involve quoting for a product development project, shelf-life testing a range of fruit products, assisting a business with product and new product development, manufacturing, marketing and advice on legislation for developing a low fat and low salt product range and new package development for an airline meal project.

Funding and continually responding to industry needs

The FoodSkills Centre is currently looking to support key areas of development in commerce provided funding can be secured from the Rural Development Plan for the East of England. Such key projects include assisting a number of local cheese companies. This project would involve market research to identify a food cluster group, development of a marketing strategy, identification of product sensory and quality parameters and upskilling of current producer/owners.

Another area of research which the team would like to investigate is the varieties of wheat with a low gluten content and the subsequent production of low gluten products for the retail and health markets.

Future objectives

While evaluation is limited after only three months in operation, the FoodSkills Centre aims to deliver the following over the next three years:

  • A high-tech specialist skills centre using ICT to develop business and technology skills.

  • Continued development of on-line workbased training materials in partnership with industry to facilitate flexible delivery methods.

  • 600 learning outcomes at NVQ Levels 2-4.

  • The assistance to 50 SMEs via training.

  • Helping ten SMEs register for Investors in People.

  • Establish a coherent qualification framework applicable to the food chain.

  • A help-line service to provide technical support to businesses.

There is already an extensive programme of seminars, workshops, breakfast meetings and conventional training sessions to provide the opportunities for operators within the landbased and food sectors to support one another, network, benchmark and hold discussions on prevailing issues affecting their industries.


In conclusion the Food Project is viewed as a strategic long-term investment established to meet the needs of the food industry for years to come. The Employer Forum is committed to providing a critical mass of expertise and resources to provide a focus for private sector investment in the future. The FoodSkills Centre aims to be the natural employer focus for training and development and will continuously build on the private sector funding previously secured in order to eventually become financially self-sustaining.

Sarah Jane CousinsPublic Relations Officer, Otley College, Marketing Division

Related articles