Sense of taste: Careers in food and drink manufacturing

Food and drink is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK and is looking to get the attention of graduates.

The food and drink sector suffers perhaps more than most from misconceptions about manufacturing. It’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the still-persisting image of men with oily spanners: food manufacture is a high-tech process industry, conducted in spotlessly clean conditions and with a high level of automation and computer control.

The biggest manufacturing sector, accounting for 15 per cent of UK manufacturing output, it employs around 400,000 people with as many as 1.2 million in ancillary services. It needs graduate food scientists and technologists, and engineers skilled in process engineering and automation, as well as students of a younger age with a potential interest in these fields. Yet it struggles to get the attention of engineering graduates.

This is surprising for an industry with a high level of computer-controlled processes and a focus on lean manufacturing and improving efficiency, all of which are needed to respond to fast-changing trends.

’Automation is important when dealing with demanding clients such as supermarkets. Profit margins are tight and you need to adapt to changing seasons and tastes quickly,’ said Merlin Goldman, lead technologist at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). ’Supermarkets will feed back information and the owner of the plant will have to react fast.’ Moreover, according to a spokesman for Improve, the skills council for the sector, the industry has proved fairly resistant to the recession, and offers good starting salaries and career progression.

“The future success of the industry depends in large part on having skilled technicians and motivated managers”

Two government-industry initiatives launched in the last few weeks aim to address the skills shortage and make sure the industry continues to be at the forefront of technology.

The Nutrition for Life R&D programme was launched by the Technology Strategy Board in October with support from three research councils, Defra and Scottish Enterprise. Under the programme, 27 collaborative R&D programmes and 24 feasibility studies will share more than £7m of government investment, matched by industry to bring the total to £14.5m. They share a common theme of developing healthier, safer and more nutritious food.

The R&D projects will be business-led and involve innovative techniques whose application will be technically challenging and that need an additional push to commercialise them. They include processing methods to retain the nutritional quality of raw fruit and vegetables in processed foods; formulation technologies to allow the reduction of fat and salt in food products; the identification of functional foods to improve heart health; and baking with ultrasound.

For the feasibility studies, 24 small- and medium-sized companies will receive £25,000 each. Projects include the use of X-ray fluorescence to detect adulteration in food production lines and techniques for extending the nutritional life of fruit and vegetables.

Most of the major projects are expected to start to commercialise their output within as little as a year, said the TSB’s Goldman.

Food and drink sector
The food and drink sector needs process and automation engineers

Also in October, it was announced that a skills programme led by Improve will receive almost £1.7m of government funding, for which match funding from the industry has already been committed.

This initiative consists of four sub-projects. One is a pre-employment training programme, under which 600 currently unemployed young people will be trained to be ’work ready’ for the food and drink sector.

Two other initiatives relate to the development of industry-wide standards setting out the professional standards and skills expected of workers in different food industry jobs, and a benchmarking initiative to help food and drink companies emulate the approach of class-leading businesses in improving performance through training.

Finally, the Tasty Graduates project will establish a UK centre of excellence in food production engineering and a food engineering university programme. This will be designed to provide a minimum of 40 graduate engineers annually.

Jonathan Cooper of the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink said: ’The future success of the industry depends in large part on having highly skilled technicians and motivated managers who have the know-how to maximise the benefits of new technology and introduce innovation.’