That was the view expressed by senior food and drink figures who attended a recent industry event held by executive search specialists Livingston James, law firm MacRoberts and accountancy firm Johnston Camichael, whose Glasgow office recently launched a specialist food and drink team.
At the event, which featured an address by James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, participants discussed the implications of Brexit for the sector, and its plans to double its value to £30bn by 2030.
Sean Austin, managing director of Paterson Arran, which manufactures the UK’s leading shortbread brand1, said: “Scotland’s food and drink industry already has a skills issue.
"If we can’t get access to labour, manufacturers are likely to turn to automation. Although this means businesses will need fewer people overall, they will need more highly skilled labour.
“This will be a challenge for us all as the oil industry continues to recover and sucks in skilled engineers.”
Ben Walker, Head of Food and Drink at executive search specialists Livingston James, added: “While the potentially negative impact of Brexit on securing labour for certain sectors such as fruit and vegetable production, or fish farming, has been well documented there is less awareness of how it could affect more senior roles.
“We regularly recruit internationally for top food and drink jobs including researchers and senior management, and there is a real danger that our businesses will not be competitive if we can’t recruit the best people.”
Sean Austin said the Scottish food and drink industry is preparing as best as it can, but urged greater certainty.
He added: “Tariffs will be a huge issue for food and drink manufacturers and while Paterson Arran is a relatively small exporter country of origin will also be an issue if we don’t have the right agreement.
“Businesses like ours are working hard on contingency plans but some of this investment will be wasted because not all of the scenarios will come to pass.”
Adam Hardie, Head of Food and Drink, said: “Our food and drink event was a great forum for senior business figures to come together and share information, as well as meet new people.
“We were keen to gather our clients and contacts together to discuss the issues around Brexit.”
The food and drink event was held before Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit White Paper which would end the automatic free movement of people into the UK from the EU but proposes a “mobility framework”, which would allow easy movement for work or study.
The plan, which would also create a free trade area for industrial and agricultural goods within the bloc, was published to form the basis of the UK’s negotiations with the EU. The current exit date is March 29, 2019.
• Our Scotsman Conference in September will look at how we can move forward after Brexit - Beyond Brexit: Future-proofing food and drink in Scotland