Students show new interest in food and drink courses

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Students show new interest in food and drink courses
Uptake of undergraduate food and drink courses is finally on the increase, but will this lead to an end of the skills shortage? Stefan Chomka assesses graduate job prospects in the food and drink industry

Finally some good recruitment news for food and drink manufacturers. According to the latest figures from the Universities and Colleges Administration Service (UCAS), interest in food-related courses is on the rise. In fact, applications for food and beverages studies were up by a third on last year as people are being drawn back to the industry.

Companies should also be encouraged by some of UCAS's other statistics. According to its latest figures, nutrition is another degree course which has grown in popularity over the past year. While in 2003 712 applicants were accepted on nutrition courses, this year the figure has increased by over 30% to 928.

So what might be drawing people back to the industry? Glen Prince, md of recruitment consultancy Quantica Search and Selection, says food and drink is becoming more attractive to students because of its career prospects and the high availability of jobs. "There are a lot of excellent companies to work for, that offer good pay packages, health care and which promote good career progression," he says.

For students wanting a career that offers a lot of progression, they need look no further than food production or engineering jobs, says Prince. "People that come up through technical roles such as quality assurance or new product development (NPD) usually tend to stay in that function," he says. "If you aspire to sit on the board or become an operations director you need to come up through the operations or engineering route."

In the current climate, where many food manufacturers are feeling the pinch from the major multiples, operation and management roles are set to become increasingly important to companies. It is in these areas where really good job prospects lie for potential employees.

"The strength of the major multiples and the power struggle between them is putting an inordinate amount of pressure back on manufacturers," says Prince. "A lot of players are now looking internally at reducing costs."

Prince says the main positions that will have a key impact on this cost-cutting drive and push for greater operational efficiencies are production, shift and line managers. "Companies are moving away from supervisory roles and are looking for business managers that are capable of running lines."

He also says that the key growth sectors for employment are in chilled and fresh foods, as the demand for healthier and fresher food increases. NPD, nutrition and even sales and marketing people are particularly sought-after at the moment, he says, which is something graduates should well consider.

"Innovation is going to come from really good NPD people, which companies need to put their organisation at the forefront of the industry. Alongside that, category managers and national account managers are also in big demand."

The job prospects for talented engineers, of which there has long been a shortage in the food manufacturing arena, are also extremely high, says Prince. "There is a dearth of technically competent engineers as companies have stopped apprenticeship schemes," he says.

Companies are demanding more from their engineers, so that as well as being skilled in maintenance they must also have business and leadership skills.

"Companies have gone down the route of employing a technical engineer who also manages people -- and these are very hard to get hold of," says Prince. While this means that engineering roles are getting tougher, the pay reward is substantial, he adds.

job security

Simon Reichwald, director of graduate recruitment company Graduate Success, says the fact that so many roles are in demand in food and drink means the industry is enticing graduates that want job security.

While he says last year 310,000 graduates flooded the jobs market, there were only 67,000 graduate jobs available. Moving into an industry that has a glut of graduate positions available, therefore, makes good sense. "There is a huge opportunity for graduates. The message needs to get out that in the food industry, if you get a good degree you are going to be in demand."

However, while the opportunities are there for the well-paid jobs, lesser paid roles in the industry are keeping the average wage down. While Reichwald says that in the fast moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector pay is generally very high, in sectors such as fresh produce, salary levels are low.

Another barrier for people entering the industry is the working patterns. In the food industry a 9-5 day is rare and in many cases shift work is required. Something, which Prince says will not please everyone.

"Shift work is typically not the most popular of things," he says. "Quality auditors, NPD and first line managers may have to work night shifts and many feel the shift premium does not compensate for the disruption it causes to their lives."

The male/female divide still evident in the industry may also be a deterrent for some. According to Prince, food and drink is still very much split between the types of roles male and females fill. Engineering and manufacturing roles, which offer the best progression, are still regarded as jobs for the boys, while auditing, quality assurance, sensory and microbiological testing and NPD tend to attract more females.

However, this is not always the case, and women are crossing over into previously male-dominated areas of work, with much success. "What we do find is that when we come across a female in an operations or manufacturing role they tend to be very good at their job indeed," says Prince.

end to graduate schemes

Manufacturers should also be encouraged by the news that there will be more food and drink graduates since the industry has increasingly gone down the route of employing graduates.

Reichwald says that although every company would like to employ a person with an excellent track record, in reality this doesn't happen. Even if they did find a candidate like that, it is likely their existing company will try and retain them by offering a better package, he says. "Companies are aware there aren't enough second jobbers to go around."

Companies are also more reliant on university graduates now that many in the industry have stopped their own graduate schemes, either because the overheads were too great or because they weren't benefiting from the time and money invested in the people. "Companies have pulled out of graduate schemes because they were taking graduates in, training and developing them only to see them clear off to other companies," says Prince.

Reichwald agrees, and cites the example of Nestlé, which recently scrapped its two-year graduate programme and has returned to recruiting for graduates when a vacancy becomes open.

Instead, food and drink industry companies are realising they don't need huge graduate schemes, says Reichwald. "A graduate scheme doesn't have to be a spangly management programme where people are rotated around the company."

A word of caution, however. While young people may be taking a renewed interest in food, Prince warns companies not to sit back and wait for the graduates to come to them. With the current skills shortage, the best candidates are likely to be snapped up pretty quickly, he says. "There are fewer people around with the requisite skills. There aren't a million and one people out there that can do the jobs." FM

Related topics: People & Skills

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