Brain power summoned to production lines

"Wanted: food industry workers. Only qualifications needed: an ability to read, write and hold a conversation."

At least that is how it used to be. But now traditional factory jobs in the food and drink industries and chemical processing are being transformed, according to a new report by the Institute for Employment Studies.

Processing workers - those on the factory floor who monitor or operate machinery, prepare the finished product and package it for distribution - need to develop a wider range of skills, the report says. They can no longer "leave their brains at the factory gate" as one employer put it.

The report, part of the Department for Education and Employment's skills review programme, calls on employers to change their attitudes and invest in workplace training to help production line staff take on the new roles created as a result of business pressures.

Machine operators need to rotate tasks, says the report - it is inefficient to restrict them to one piece of machinery. Some companies are training production staff in simple engineering and maintenance tasks.

These workers also need computer literacy, team-working and personal skills, technical understanding, business awareness, flexibility and a positive attitude.

Traditional perceptions of what constituted "male" and "female" jobs has sometimes served to reinforce out-of-date practice. A fish processing worker said: "There is a view that men cannot put 10 fish fingers in a box because they have got big hands. Why, then, are most jewellers men?" Computers have replaced much heavy physical labour but this means workers have to do more thinking and problem-solving. Increasing amounts of documentation, report-writing and record-keeping, often with calculations involved, have been delegated by the managers who had traditionally taken it on. Emphasis on teamwork has diluted ingrained "not my job" attitudes and also means factory floor workers have to contribute to team meetings, develop ideas for improvement and communicate their ideas verbally and in writing.

They are also expected to tackle some repairs and maintenance to avoid long waits for an engineer when there is a machine failure. "In the past, when the line stopped, everyone twiddled their thumbs. No one can afford to do that any more," said one worker.

Responsibility for quality control has been passed down the line in many companies, with all workers expected to contribute to maintaining standards. Public pressure has helped to bring this about. "After all, they don't want fingernails in their chocolate, do they?" said one respondent.

Recruitment and selection had also changed dramatically. "There were very few minimum criteria in the past. We basically asked 'are they breathing?' said one employer.

IES Report 336, Productive Skills for Process Operatives by L Giles, J Kodz and C Evans, is available at Pounds 19.95 plus Pounds 2 pp from Grantham Book Services Ltd, Isaac Newton Way, Alma Park Industrial Estate, Grantham NG31 9SD. Tel 01476 541080 to order.

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