THE growth of Scotland’s food and drink industry will stall unless businesses are able to employ migrant workers to fill skills gaps in roles including engineers, butchers and business analysts, a national trade body is warning.

Food and Drink Federation Scotland is also calling for the introduction of a youth mobility scheme that could bring 18 to 30 year olds from the European Union to the UK for up to two years. The same scheme would allow young people from Scotland and across the UK to spend time in the EU.

An existing UK Home Office scheme – known as the Tier 5 Youth Mobility Scheme Visa – was open in 2020 to more than 50,000 young people from countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Monaco and Hong Kong.

“We need something that brings in young people, like an EU to UK youth mobility scheme,” said David Thomson, chief executive of Food and Drink Federation Scotland, which represents food and drink manufacturers. “Is there something that could be done there to bring in a wider range of people from the EU in that age group? This would help alleviate some of the pressures, not just on food and drink manufacturing, but I'm sure on hospitality as well.”

More than 12% of workers in the Scottish food and drink sector are from non-UK European Union countries, according to the Scottish Government, with up to 22,000 non-UK seasonal workers employed on Scottish farms every year. In a 2019 report, national skills agency Skills Development Scotland estimated that the Scottish food and drink industry needed 41,900 new recruits by 2029 to meet the sector’s skills needs.

Food and Drink Federation Scotland and other bodies including Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation, Scottish Bakers and Quality Meat Scotland are calling on the UK government to include food and drink roles in the Scottish Shortage Occupations List by the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December.

This is a UK Home Office list that allows employers preferential terms to employ migrant labour for vacancies in areas of identified shortage.

"The worst case scenario is that, if none of these changes go through, the worry is that the food chain in Scotland is understaffed, because it doesn't have the right skills,” Mr Thomson said. “Its growth stalls, particularly for small and medium enterprises who are less able to afford what will be significant costs in a skilled visa system. And for those parts of the food chain that are in remote and rural locations, it will be even harder for them to attract staff."

Under the UK government’s current immigration system, only graduate-level roles are classified as skilled. This will change on 1 January 2021 with the introduction of a new skilled visa for roles requiring at least an A-level, or equivalent qualifications or experience. But there are many skilled roles in food and drink that do not meet this threshold.

“Fork lift drivers, machine operators, meat processors – these are all highly skilled and valued, but don’t meet the UK government’s classification of what skill is,” Mr Thomson said. “The food and drink industry also needs engineers, business analysts and vets, all of which the UK government’s own advisers have said are in shortage in across the UK. There are roles in agriculture, fishing and all types of processing. And we need seasonal workers in sectors like soft fruit.”

A Pick for Britain campaign launched early on in lockdown to attract UK workers had limited success, Mr Thomson said, with the National Farmers Union reporting that 89% of seasonal roles were still being performed by migrant workers.

Food and Drink Federation Scotland and its industry partners have not received any response to their letter to Boris Johnson earlier this month with key asks ahead of the end of the EU transition period on 31 December, Mr Thomson said.