Work based training – an answer to our sector’s skills shortage?

Marrying higher education with work based training to tackle our sector’s skills shortage.

Industry news
Published: 20/05/2024

by Professor Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal for Enterprise and Business at Heriot-Watt University

Scotland's food and drink industry is facing a significant skills shortage that could hinder its future growth and competitiveness in the coming years. Multiple reports have warned that specialist roles will become increasingly difficult to fill. A recent report by Food and Drink Federation Scotland found that almost 35,000 new recruits will be needed by 2031 for roles ranging from engineers to scientists. Scotland’s brewing and distilling industries also face challenges with the Brewers Association of Scotland finding that over 40% of breweries have reported difficulties when recruiting.

As well as recruiting externally, a number of forward-looking companies in the sector are already upskilling their existing workforces. As accessible education pathways continue to develop, employees can gain higher education qualifications and future-proof their skills while continuing to work.

One effective solution is the Graduate Apprenticeship (GA) programme which combines practical work-based learning with theoretical study, producing well-rounded graduates equipped to excel in their chosen field.

Heriot-Watt’s GA programmes offer significant benefits to the food and drink sector and are already addressing the skills shortage across a range of specialist roles. We work hand-in-hand with employers like Diageo to design GA curricula that combine university study with real-world industry experience. This two-pronged approach tailors skills relevant to specific business and industry challenges while providing students with direct access to industry mentors. 

One Diageo employee who has been benefiting from this approach is Iona McGhie, a former Fife College engineering apprentice who recently won Modern Apprentice SVQF Level 6 of the Year at the Scottish Apprenticeship Awards. Iona is now working towards a GA degree in Engineering Design and Manufacture programme to help fast-track her career with Diageo.

Combining workplace learning with lectures on campus, Iona has the best of both worlds. She says: “By studying for a degree through the GA programme, I’ve been able to interact directly with people at the university and build my expertise. It has also given me a better understanding at work about the processes I’m involved in on a daily basis.

“I think that there’s a definite advantage for people wanting to work in engineering to complete a GA as it can really help upskill you while you’re building vital relationships and learning about different parts of the business.”

For many Modern Apprentices (MAs) like Iona, a Graduate Apprenticeship can be a natural continuation of their career development. However, the MA to GA progression route is not being fully utilised by employers, particularly in the engineering sector. This shows that there is a lot of potential for engineering employers to look at Graduate Apprenticeships as a key development tool for existing Modern Apprentices. 

As one of the pioneers of Graduate Apprenticeships, we’ve built on our proud history of being at the forefront of work-based learning in Scotland. Our employer partners range from SMEs to large multinational organisations and we help them to further develop their workforce, attract new talent and retain key staff.

Addressing industry skills shortages needs to be approached from all angles and that means finding flexible learning pathways that suit people of all ages and which accommodates all life stages. Nearly a third of our students now study online through Heriot-Watt Online courses which gives them access to career-focussed, flexible, lifelong learning opportunities so that they can stay in employment or seek new employment by upskilling and reskilling.

By leveraging both online and in-person education methods, employers can provide tactical avenues for current staff to upskill. Simultaneously, it opens paths for new students to gain qualifications for in-demand roles like brewers, distillers, and maintenance engineers in key Scottish, UK and international food and drink industries.

I encourage companies from across the sector to come and talk to us about your skills requirements and talent gaps so we can support your retention and development pipeline today and in the future.

Learn more about opportunities through either Heriot-Watt Online here, or the

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