Cuisine crusade: opportunities in the food and drink sector

A campaign is helping to break down some of the outdated myths surrounding careers in the food and drink industry

Taste Success, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) campaign, scored a hit with its stand at March’s Big Bang engineering careers exhibition. And redoubling its efforts to reach teenagers, it also launched a YouTube channel and a Facebook page.

One of a number of initiatives that are addressing skills in the food and drink sector, Taste Success is focused on the industry’s image and is trying to reach 13-19 year olds, as well as careers teachers and parents.

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‘Our research shows young people don’t see the food and drink industry as an attractive career,’ said Nicki Hunt, Taste Success project manager at the FDF.

She outlines three problems that have been identified. First, perceptions of the industry: people are not coming in, either because they don’t know much about the industry or because the image they do have is a negative one. Second, there is a lack in some areas of qualifications specifically tailored to the industry, so although you can study food science or food technology there is no specific food engineering course. Third, more job opportunities need to be created for non-graduates, and the industry is aiming to double the number of apprentices by the end of 2012.

So Taste Success is devoting a lot of energy ‘to getting information out there’ and also ‘to bust some of the popular myths’, said Hunt. Despite its size and importance to the economy as the biggest sector within manufacturing, the food and drink sector has a low profile compared with, say, aerospace or pharmaceuticals. But many people’s impressions are out of date. ‘People think of the industry as hairnets, wellies and production lines,’ said Hunt.

It is thought to be low paid, when, in fact, salaries are comparable with most industries. It is seen as ‘boring’ work when it is highly automated, employing large numbers of skilled engineers and IT experts.

“There is an idea that there are poor prospects, but many seniors have risen through the ranks”

There is an idea that there are poor prospects, whereas may of the senior people in the industry have risen through the ranks, Hunt added. The industry is very stable, with the average time an employee stays with an employer being nine years.

Food and drink has also proved to be one of the most resilient sectors of industry during the economic downturn.

Click here to view the latest engineering opportunities in the UK food and drink sector

The campaign has produced a wide range of information, available on its website and through myth-busting brochures, and including case studies of people not much older than the target audience in a variety of careers in the industry. It is engaging directly with students and matching companies to careers fairs in their area. The sector has also been chosen by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to take part in this year’s See Inside Manufacturing, so in June a wide range of food and drink manufacturing plants will be opening their doors to show children what goes on.

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March’s Big Bang fair, where the campaign worked in partnership with Nestlé, was an overwhelming success, said Hunt. The stand featured a Smarties fountain designed by Nestlé apprentices in York and a manufacturing challenge computer game in which children – competing on behalf of their schools – navigated through the process of making a KitKat. The competition was fierce, with the prize for the winning school of a visit by Nestlé’s confectionery team to do a chocolate-making demonstration.

Meanwhile, at Big Bang the campaign went digital, with the launch of a Taste Success YouTube channel, plus a Facebook page inviting votes for the sexiest foods and with a campaign ‘landing page’ directing people to case studies and more detailed information about careers in the industry.

By 2017, the sector will require 137,000 new recruits, of which 45,000 will be for managerial roles and professional occupations. These will include food scientists and technologists, business managers, IT specialists and general scientists. But the biggest number of vacancies, and often the hardest to fill, are in engineering – a situation exacerbated by the lack of a bespoke food engineering course.

‘We need people qualified in food engineering to organise the production lines and develop processes,’ said Hunt. ‘Food engineering is quite specialised, and so is a lot of the equipment we use.’ Many recruits are coming in with general engineering degrees, which while good, said Hunt, ‘are not really fitting company requirements’.

“People think of the food and drink industry as hairnets, wellies and production lines”

Nicki Hunt, Food and Drink Federation

The industry is addressing this through the Graduate Ambition scheme, which aims to develop a bespoke industry degree course. It also seeks to encourage people to consider food engineering more seriously through member companies by providing added value to the course.

In partnership with the National Skills Academy for food and drink, the FDF will be working with a university to develop the new degree course to equip graduates with the skills and knowledge the industry needs. A brief is currently being developed, and by summer this year partners will be asked to commit themselves to supporting the initiative.

Meanwhile, the industry is also providing opportunities for school leavers and students looking at options other than a degree, with a renewed focus on apprenticeships. The federation is calling on manufacturers to sign up to the Apprenticeship Pledge. Launched in October 2011, it aims to double the number of apprenticeships throughout the industry (to 3,400) by the end of this year. Hunt said that getting companies, especially smaller ones, acquainted with the apprenticeships ‘is a slow-burning process’ but she is confident the sector is on track to meet the target. The federation has been helping firms to put in place the right sort of training and to establish links with colleges. ‘We’ve been running workshops for companies, particularly smaller companies, with the National Apprenticeship Service to navigate through what they need to do,’ said Hunt.