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Report Segment: Bernard Matthews

Bernard Matthews

Bryan Hurst is Bernard Matthews training manager responsible for the personal development of 3,000 staff across sites in Norfolk and Suffolk.

“Marks & Spencer won’t wait for us so why should I have to wait for a college” is Bryan Hurst’s riposte when asked about working with the local FE sector. Bernard Matthews used to do more work with a local college but now much of that has either been taken in-house or has been contracted out to private providers. Responding to employers needs is rarely the key focus of a college (whose key client group are government funded full time students). So it is little surprise when they don’t manage to deliver training specifications at the right time or the right price. However EAGIT was signalled out for praise. Bryan has had five engineering apprentices through EAGIT and is pleased with the results; “very good, a change for the better” he remarked.

Bernard Matthews works closely with the Sector Skills Council on qualifications frameworks and is an exemplar company when it comes to training staff. Typical qualifications include the vocational and proficiency certificates and diplomas. Almost all of the skills relate to poultry - Poultry Meat Inspection at Levels 2 and 3. Food safety and health and safety training are also essential to the company and much of this is undertaken in-house by Bryan’s team of on-line and off-line trainers.

One can’t avoid the question of migrant labour when it comes to discussing training the workforce of the food processing sector. Around 95% of Bernard Matthews new employees are non UK, coming from Poland, Portugal and several other EU countries. If these workers stay, and from Bryan Hurst’s experience, many do then the investment in training (for example in adult apprenticeships) is worthwhile and a means of upskilling the future workforce of Britain. But if they return to their home countries within a year or two, then one has to ask whether the (government subsidised) investment has been worthwhile – especially given the shortage of public sector subsidies for the development of the future UK workforce. Even if one argues that UK workers are just as unlikely to stay in the same sector in the long term at least the skills base is retained and available to build upon in another sector. So the question of subsidising training for short term EU migrant labour needs to be out in the open. It brings to the fore, the issue of the perception of the food processing sector, how to encourage young local people into the sector and how to influence employers so that they do more to provide clear employee benefits: this could include shorter working hours in the factory, guaranteed management training for those who want it; and subsidised travel for those coming from a distance.

It is interesting to note that the meat processing sector, especially the parts relating to boning, is still very much a manual sector with low levels of automation and a high degree of skill required to ensure that meat wastage is kept to a minimum. It takes six months to become a fully qualified meat boner at Bernard Matthews and 16 weeks to learn the basics. Whilst there are some UK workers who do this, the majority of workers are non UK workers from other EU countries.

A point worth noting here is that the Home Office list of skills shortage trades (which allows foreign nationals (i.e. non EU) to apply for UK jobs in specific sectors where shortages persist), included until recently, skilled meat boners where the pay is at least £9.00 per hour and skilled meat trimmers where the pay is at least £9.00 per hour. The November 2011 list no longer mentions meat boners as eligible for the scheme.