Bridging the skills gap

22 April 2021

MARK MCARDLE examines how the Irish food industry can develop the skills set required for a more automated future.

Making the transition from a largely manual way of working to an automation-based future is no easy task. However, it is a road down which the Irish food industry must travel if it is to continue developing the agility and resilience it needs to meet the demands of a growing and increasingly discerning population and, perhaps more importantly, a large export market.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were all aware of the challenges that the food sector was facing.  Experienced personnel are leaving the industry and attracting a new generation with the right skills set into the food sector is problematic. This situation isn’t getting any easier - but improved productivity and greater agility in responding to changes in demand will be vital to ensure the sector continues to compete in the future.

Defining what skills are likely to be required is a big challenge. The food sector is particularly diverse and different parts of the supply chain are at very different stages regarding the adoption of digitalisation and Industry 4.0 ways of working. Within the agricultural community, for instance, manual working continues to be the norm because people are still quicker and more adaptable than machines in many scenarios. There are some notable examples of globally successful companies in Ireland, such as Dairymaster, providing equipment rich in up to date automation technology to the food industry and many world class food processing companies based in Ireland are highly automated. However, the use of digitalisation and the benefits of Industry 4.0 thinking and design are not yet evident to any great degree. A good example is GPS on tractors and software that enables fertiliser dosages to be carefully controlled.

However, this sector cannot rely on the availability of manual labour in the future. The seasonality, the long hours and the physical nature of many agricultural tasks mean that working on the land is simply no longer an attractive proposition for many young people. Migratory workers from other countries may have helped to mask this trend but it is likely that increased automation may be the only answer for agriculture. This will lead to a need for differently skilled people to operate and maintain automation equipment. Already, the dairy sector is facing a crisis in that they cannot attract enough people to enter the sector.

Automation is more prominent once food enters the processing phase. Indeed, minimising human contact during food processing is positively beneficial from a hygiene perspective.  Packing, picking and warehousing are also highly automated processes, supporting the growing customer trend for online grocery shopping. It follows that the skills set to develop and maintain automated equipment is also more prevalent in food processing and packaging, so there may be some opportunities to attract these people out into other parts of the food production supply chain.

However, it is likely that in the short term the food sector may need to compete with the limited pool of skilled talent in the marketplace and other sectors to get these skills in. The food sector can also look to other sectors for successful evolution, examples like the Germany automotive industry who have successfully upskilled its workforce.  There are also some very quick wins like the Festo Smart maintenance app to help automate a human process. This is a powerful but simple tool that improves overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) with an intuitive mobile phone application.

Digitally proving processes through simulation will become more important, along with the need for increased production and performance data. This will bring additional skills challenges: for example, how do you extract valuable data from all the information available by doing the right analysis and making the necessary adjustments or changes?

It is clear that there is a real and urgent need for the food sector to grasp the implications of increasing automation and identify what skills it will require in the medium- to longer-term.

Future skills

The types of new skills needed to help prepare for the future fall into two areas – technical and soft skills.  It is unlikely that any one engineer can be a master of all the emerging technologies, so this places a greater demand on soft skills to ensure the new opportunities are understood and realised.

Engineers and technical staff, from corporate-level heads of engineering to shop-floor personnel, will need to constantly and increasingly update their skill sets.  The acceleration of technology is becoming exponential, therefore the half-life, ie. the decay of their knowledge, is decreasing more rapidly.

Hopefully the food sector can learn some lessons from the current pandemic in relation to the preparedness of engineering teams to quickly adapt to change. Automation needs to be flexible enough to respond to rapid fluctuations in demand. For food processors to have the confidence to invest they must have a good ROI, but this needs to be looked at over a longer period than we do today. Automation can reduce labour costs, improve flexibility and ensure food security. However, you also need to invest in the selection and development of skilled staff to run and maintain the factory – and that all costs money.

In conclusion, a skilled workforce is the key ingredient for the long-term success of any industry and the food sector is no exception. The increase in automation and the need to be more agile and flexible in meeting customer expectations is exacerbating the challenges of training and retaining employees with relevant skills – so the food sector needs to act now to identify the opportunities and develop the training that will help to retain its position as the largest manufacturing sector in Ireland.

Mark McArdle is general manager for Festo Ireland