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Food is not just production, industry tells career-seekers

By Jess Halliday, 14-Sep-2009

Related topics: Market Trends, Careers in food

The UK food and drink sector is getting creative about its efforts to redress the shortage of engineers, scientists and technologists – including opening eyes to the range of careers on offer and training initiatives.

The latest study by Improve, the skills council for the food and drink sector, was conducted in 2005 and found that one in four vacancies for food scientists and technologists were unfilled and hard to fill.

An updated study is due next year, but in the meantime the industry has identified some reasons why the sector is struggling to attract top talent, and is taking action to redress them.

Flora McLean, director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation, told FoodNavigator.com that one problem is unawareness of the variety of career possibilities. When they think about food and drink, they tend to think about production jobs only. There is relatively little awareness about hands-on food science jobs and some are surprised that there is a need for engineers in the food sector as engineering is generally more associated with the energy sector.

“This is partly our own fault,” she said. The industry has tended to use publicity images of production roles, as items coming off a production line makes for a good picture and it is not so easy to come up with images that show other roles so well.

A new film, called A World of Opportunities, has been produced by the Scottish industry association to give other roles and airing. Being distributed to colleges and, shortly, to schools, it showcase a broad spectrum of careers and introduces professionals who are passionate about their work.

“People need to understand that there are lots of opportunities they have never thought of, or never even heard of,” said McLean.

Arming advisors

McLean said it is important for the industry to provide careers guidance materials. “Initially kids are looking for people to open their eyes. We need to explain the industry to people who will help with choices, so that the advisors know the industry as well as we do.”

Paul Newham, a spokesperson for Improve, said that attracting the young is a major priority. Currently under a quarter of the workforce is under 25 years old, so the shortage is likely to worsen as more people reach retirement age.

Newman that the shortage of food and drink professionals broadly affects the whole of the UK, but the gravity depends on region and sub-sector. The story differs between fresh produce, butchery and bakery, for instance, and between sales and marketing, management and engineering.

The National Skills Academy is currently developing regional networks that would provide a forum for training and skills development, and help employers link up with providers that meet their needs.

Food in the recession

The performance of the food industry in the recession could also prove a selling point to new entrants.

“In a tough climate the food industry is on more solid footing, as people need to eat,” said McLean. “We hear there are still engineering roles, marketing roles, with good salary points advertised - and apprenticeships.”

It is also important to point out the possibility for career development within the food sector, especially through graduate training schemes and apprenticeships.

“They may come in at one role, but there will be opportunities to progress in the industry.”

A World of Opportunities is available on YouTube.

Part one

Part two

More information on the National Skills Academy is available at http://www.foodanddrink.nsacademy.co.uk