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‘Sexing-up’ career opportunities in the food industry

08 August 2016

As the food sector continues to grow and expand Peter Weston looks at what can be, and is being, done to secure the next generation of food manufacturing professionals. 

Despite being the UK's largest manufacturing sector, the food industry consistently struggles to attract young and talented engineers. Fears over recruitment are exacerbated by the aging workforce – up to one-third of the 400,000 existing employees are expected to retire by 2020 according to the latest annual report from the National Skills Academy for Food & Drink (NSAFD).

The food sector – rightly or wrongly – is perceived to be at the lower end of the technological scale with less innovation and challenges than other more attractive sectors, such as aerospace and automotive. This view is shared by young engineers who believe the industry to be repetitive, dull and menial. Images of the food industry typically show factories and production lines and do not accurately represent the diversity or complexity of the sector.

There is also a general misunderstanding of what food engineering actually is. Processing raw ingredients and turning them into packaged products requires a number of interdisciplinary skills; from an understanding of food science – to appreciate how seasonal fluctuations in ingredients can affect manufacturing processes – to advanced automation systems to improve productivity. All this must be done while adhering to strict health and safety regulations.

I studied chemical and process engineering, which facilitated many skills that are relevant and transferable to food engineering. Not once throughout my four years of study did I consider a career in food engineering and a quick scroll through my LinkedIn feed suggests that the majority of my former classmates are now working in either the nuclear or renewable energy industries.

Changing attitudes
To change the attitude towards the food sector will not be an easy feat but progress has been made. 

Firstly, there is acceptance within the industry that there is a problem which needs to be rectified. The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), who act as the voice of the industry, have launched a number of initiatives to appeal to and inspire interest in food engineering. 'Taste Success – A Future in Food' is one of these schemes, aimed at 14 to 19 year olds to promote the sector as being innovative with excellent career prospects.

At a higher level, Sheffield Hallam University, home to the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering, is the only UK university to offer full-time Bachelors and Masters degree courses in Food Engineering. Backed by the FDF and the NSAFD, these courses are led by industry partners to offer a focussed and applied syllabus. In addition, the courses have close links to large companies within the industry; providing students with first-hand access and work placements with over 40 companies, including Nestlé, Premier Foods and Mondeléz. These opportunities are rarely available to university students in other engineering subjects.

However, the industry could do a great deal more to promote itself. Food companies are renowned for excellent marketing. Would it not be possible to use this inherent capability to promote the behind-the-brand talent of their food engineers? Food marketers often promote a rustic portrayal of how their products are made, belying the innovation and intelligence required in their manufacturing. If young engineers could observe the technical sophistication involved in developing and maintaining high-speed, robotic production lines then perhaps pre-conceived ideas of who food engineers are, and what they do, could be challenged and changed. 

The role food engineers play in solving complex, multifaceted problems could also be brought to the fore. Highlighting key challenges the food sector faces to deliver sustainable, energy efficient and innovative solutions, across all aspects of the industry – could inspire the next generation of food engineers. Agile and intelligent robotics, novel processing techniques to preserve the natural properties of raw ingredients, and developing advanced food packaging are just a few of these innovations. Young people are ambitious and want to solve big problems – the sector should embrace this.

Lastly, a campaign to promote the 109,000 new recruits needed by 2022 to meet the skills needs of the sector could be aimed at 16 to 19 year olds studying A levels and technical courses at a further education level. In the last NUS Student Experience Research report from 2012, 71% of engineering and technology students said that one of their main reasons for going to university was to 'increase their future career opportunities with a degree'. Awareness of the career prospects available in the food sector could help sway students to study food engineering or relevant courses. 

Dr Peter Weston, MEng, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Associate for the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University.


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