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A new generation of engineering degree is born

23 October 2016

Professor Kel Fidler talks explains why the time is right for an exciting skills development for the food manufacturing sector. 

The UK has a shortage of graduate engineers which is predicted to get worse because of increasing demands by employers and the struggle to attract talented students onto engineering degrees.

This is a huge problem for the food manufacturing industry which is often not considered as exciting a prospect as, say nuclear or automotive engineering.  

The largest food engineering operations are, however, mind-boggling in their scale.  I recently visited a wine bottling plant in Bristol where thousands of bottles per hour are filled. Meanwhile Nestle, which recently featured on the BBC TV series ‘Inside the Factory’, produces 18 billion KitKat fingers very year.  And yet it is a symptom of the problem we face that in the food-related programmes in the series that I have viewed, the word ‘engineering’ has only been used twice!

Complex manufacturing systems underpin the food processing industry.  We have celebrity chefs feeding a few hundred people a day in their restaurants but no celebrity food processing engineers, whose combined efforts provide the country with a huge variety of high quality products. To continue this supply requires sufficient engineers design the technology for them and to run the factories.

Unfortunately, engineering has not done a great job of making itself an aspirational profession for graduates.  The teaching of undergraduate engineers has been compared to ‘a mind-numbing math-science death march that casts aside thousands of capable young people who might otherwise have made effective engineers!’ On top of that, people often associate engineers as those who fix washing machines, install broadband, or carry oily rags.

Incorrect stereotype
Sometimes, the very firms looking to attract top professional engineers inadvertently promulgate this stereotype.  I have seen job advertisements seeking professional engineers with images of mechanics and job descriptions about ‘fixing things’.  It is worth double-checking that your own HR and recruitment teams are not mixing up routine maintenance activities with professional engineering.

Engineering has also suffered from an assumption that it is simply the application of science and maths.  While engineering does make use of these topics, it also involves an eclectic mix of others – economics, finance, management, quality, art, design, ethics, communications, languages and marketing, for example.  

Indeed, it is engineers, who have been in the vanguard creating technologies, that have opened new areas of scientific study – think of steam engines, which inspired the science of thermodynamics, or the aerodynamic developments that followed the Wright brother’s empirical flight experiments, or recent progress in semiconductor physics spurred by the engineering of integrated circuit microchips. 

The good news for the food industry is that this is finally changing. There are initiatives from the profession and academia to modernise the image and teaching of engineering and I would call on food-manufacturing firms to get involved too, to make these initiatives a success.

One example is NMiTE (New Model in Technology & Engineering – www.nmite.org.uk) –an engineering university which, inspired by developments around the world, is creating a radically different style of teaching engineering degrees.  Students with a wide range of backgrounds (not necessarily A Level maths or science) will be able to apply when it opens in a few years’ time, although students need to show the aptitude, grit and determination to master the relevant areas as the degree progresses.  

Similarly, instead of studying subjects, courses will involve groups of students tackling real-word engineering challenges.  Specifically, engineering is not viewed as the acquisition of a body of knowledge, but rather the engagement with the ‘process’ of engineering, involving creativity, design and innovation.

The curriculum gets students solving business’s engineering problems, to produce rounded and commercially-attuned professional engineering graduates.

NMiTE is already supported by Heineken and its HP Bulmer cider factory is set to benefit from the engineering know-how that is being created on its doorstep.

NMiTE wants other food manufacturing companies to get involved too. Initially by supporting NMiTE’s development and creation, so that when the doors open in 2019 they can benefit from a supply of bright, able graduate engineers equipped with the sort of problem-solving skills that the food industry craves.

Professor Kel Fidler is a key member of the team developing NMiTE’s radical curriculum.  He is a former chairman of the Engineering Council, a former vice-chancellor and chief executive of Northumbria University, and has had widespread involvement with the food processing sector.


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