Can a small gingerbread man help you spice up your career in the food industry? Jack Matthews, chief executive officer of Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, certainly thinks so. Dunkan, the cartoon gingerbread man, is Improve's new web-based careers adviser for the food industry.
Matthews explains: "Through Dunkan you can access job profiles and find out what a job entails. So if you want to become a plant technician or a food scientist, you can go to our website and see what the job is."
Dunkan will help you build up your CV and take you through interview techniques, says Matthews. "He also gives you information on employability skills what makes you different from everybody else."
Dunkan may still be a baby he's only been around for just over a year now but Matthews says the tool is the best-used portal on Improve's website. "Dunkan is a virtual one-stop shop for how to improve your career in the food and drinks industry."
And the career opportunities are enormous. Despite the recession, there are still some very good jobs, some very good career development opportunities and some very good firms who are investing heavily.
Scott Hutchinson, md of recruitment consultancy Hutchinson Jonas group agrees. "There is a massive shortage of people with technical skills and proficiency in the food industry." He says there are two main skill areas that the industry struggles to fill: technical management food science essentially and manufacturing engineering. "A food science course at Reading or an engineering degree from Warwick can offer an almost guaranteed job for life within food manufacturing." But there are also skills shortages on the creative side as well, such as new product development.
So what sorts of jobs are available? Hutchinson says he recruits for five areas. These include operations and production consisting of the people who run the factory. Technical is another focus ensuring the food is safe to eat and of the right quality. Then there's engineering fixing the machinery and making sure it runs smoothly. Next up is logistics and the supply chain making sure products are delivered correctly and that the goods coming in are ordered correctly and procured at the lowest possible cost. The final area is new product development. That links closely with sales and marketing, says Hutchinson.
According to Matthews at Improve, one in four vacancies in the food industry is permanently vacant. But recent work by Improve, along with partner organisations such as the Institute of Food Science and Technology, the Science Council, and the Institution of Chemical Engineers, is starting to turn that around.
"In the past 12 months there have been 11 new food science and technology programmes being offered into the market place. We have six new higher education and further education institutions offering food science and technology. We are starting to eat into that one in four permanent vacancies and drive it down."
Justine Fosh is director of the National Skills Academy for food and drink manufacturing, a subsidiary of Improve. She says there is now a whole range of different careers in the food industry. These include the recognised professional careers such as marketing, finance, human resources the head office types of jobs which are pretty well defined with clear professional routes.
But she says the whole area of production has changed radically over the past 10 years so that there are now formalised career routes in that sphere as well. "The introduction of lean manufacturing techniques has started to have an impact. There are more and more opportunities for people who have a real desire to do things differently, to really take hold of things like continuous improvement and lean manufacturing. There are at least two firms that have directors of manufacturing excellence. Ten years ago you would have had a production director but you wouldn't have had an operations excellence director."
Fosh sees the whole area of continuous improvement in the food sector becoming more formalised with new qualifications being introduced. "There's a new proficiency qualification in lean manufacturing, which Improve is developing. It will be launched this year and will provide a more formalised approach to developing those skills."
One of the attractions of these new qualifications, says Fosh, is that they won't have a fixed format. There will be different levels of attainment, which allows people to learn at various levels.
"The great thing about the food industry is that it is meritocratic. You can start with low levels of formal qualification, but there is the opportunity to rise if you demonstrate your ability and your desire to learn and to work. You can get up to team leader, then supervisor and then, with more support, you can look at broader or different roles."
In order to move along and up your career path in the food industry, the first thing to do is consider upgrading your skills and enhancing your academic ability. It is not unreasonable for a prospective employer to ask: 'Why should we invest in you when you have done nothing for yourself?'
Fortunately, upskilling and getting extra qualifications is becoming easier. For example, there are the government-developed PRINCE 2 courses in project management. And many institutions offer a range of relevant courses. The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, for example, offers business-relevant qualifications to people wanting to move into accountancy, finance and management.
And on the technical side there are many ways to upskill. For example, the British Retail Consortium offers courses leading to certification in its global standards for food safety, packaging, consumer products, and storage and distribution.
Also, Improve has been working with employers to develop short, unit-based learning programmes, as opposed to the traditional three-year full-time college courses. These are aimed at people who have checked a job's profile with Dunkan and know what skills they need to do it. Again, Dunkan will help. The website lists all the skills units Improve has developed with employers, which are available through the National Skills Academy provider network, or other providers. "So you can choose to do this unit, that unit, and that unit that's me topped up," says Matthews at Improve.
"Until recently, if you wanted to move from being, say, a process line worker to being an engineer, then it probably took three or four years. We have halved that."
Matthews says that across all UK manufacturing sectors, of the 24,000 new NVQs taken up, more than 10,000 were in the food and drink sector. "That is because the qualifications are relevant. They were written and developed with employers so employers know what they are getting. It does exactly what it says on the tin."