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Why Madonna Studies won't get the washing-up done...

By Ben Bouckley, 22-Jun-2011

Related topics: People

Racing driver, Spitfire pilot, concert pianist, prima ballerina. Let’s face it, food factory manager or food technologist are not up there with the traditional dream professions for children destined to be the ‘brightest and best’ of tomorrow.

But youthful idealism aside, most of us reach an age when pragmatism tempers our unreal ambitions, and we find ourselves attracted to a life that perhaps wasn’t our youthful first choice, but still intoxicates with its business challenges, politics and ethics.

Given that, according to Food & Drink Federation (FDF) figures, 15% of UK manufacturing output by value and 3.7m staff are accounted for by a sector that contributes almost £90bn to the economy, the government should have done more in the past to promote UK food manufacturing.

Yet there are some promising signs. At the Institute of Grocery Distribution's (IGD's) Skills and Employability summit today, Food and Agriculture Minister Jim Paice announced 50,000 food industry apprenticeships, which he said showed that the food industry is "serious about becoming a place where young people seek out skilled and fulfilling careers".

At the Fresh Produce Consortium’s recent annual conference Paice also noted in passing that UK Trade & Investment's (UKTI's) new-found enthusiasm for the food sector (rather than, presumably, simply flogging expensive military kit abroad) was long overdue, and was something he himself had prompted.

Future in food

Meanwhile the FDF has published a laudable initiative ‘Taste Success: A Future in Food’ aimed at attracting talent to the sector, by increasing food and drink apprenticeships on the back of the government’s pledge to deliver an extra 250,000 position across industry by 2015.

The FDF rightly pinpoints global demand for UK food and drink, not to mention future challenges of food security and climate change that demand staff skilled in engineering, IT and the life sciences.

Which leads me to my next point. Education is obviously key, although Britain’s budding entrepreneurs, captains of industry and tomorrow should follow their ambitions, and no-one should be forced into a profession.

For whatever reason food production has an unfair reputation, perhaps reinforced by the fact that many skilled young people undertake holiday work within food factories, and unfairly conclude that the sector as a whole is low skilled and low paid.

Navel gazing

However, there is no doubt that a somewhat laissez-faire approach to career and university course choice has left us with a graduate pool (a Harvard University media studies course reportedly devoted a 90s course to Madonna's relationship with her belly button) that to a degree, no pun intended, lacks the skills necessary to fill specialist roles that perhaps now attract foreign talent instead.

To quote a line from ‘CJ’, himself overseeing the terminal decline of food firm Sunshine Desserts as its md in cheesy 70s sitcom ‘The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin’: “’C,’ my father used to say to me…’Don’t think. Philosophy doesn’t get the washing-up done.'”

As someone who lived with a philosophy student in student digs, and has himself wrestled with the mind-bending theories of Jacques Derrida, I fully concur with half of this quotation. But I would urge the government and young people today to think, think about the opportunities presented by a career in food manufacturing.

Ben Bouckley is deputy online editor of FoodManufacture.co.uk