If it's a proper job you want, then food and drink is for you

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

If it's a proper job you want, then food and drink is for you
Food and drink manufacturers are looking for bright young graduates who have technical and interpersonal skills, but who also are not frightened by a challenging working environment. Rick Pendrous reports from this year's Careers in Food and Drink (CIFAD) Live event

If you wanted to convey the excitement that goes with working in food manufacture, then you could do no better than having a chat with Dyfrig Davies. He's a young chemical engineer who graduated from Cambridge University and has been working as a process improvement engineer for Kraft Foods in Banbury for the past 18 months.

Davies admits he opted for a career in food, as his graduation coincided with a big downturn in the petrochemicals sector -- the traditional recruiter and career path for chemical engineering graduates. At the same time, big food companies were quite active in promoting the benefits of careers in the food sector.

And his experiences to date? Well he hasn't been disappointed. If anything the real nature of the job he does and the responsibilities that go with it make for a very challenging working environment -- it certainly ain't nine to five. If you like variety and dealing with problems, then it's the industry for you.

Davies gave a presentation at last month's Careers in Food and Drink (Cifad) Live show at the NEC in Birmingham, an event designed to attract budding talent -- like him -- into the sector. He co-presented, together with a female colleague from Kraft's Banbury coffee plant, on the food manufacturing day to around 100 students from colleges around the country.

Not always a perfect day

"There is no such thing as a typical day," says Davies. "The food industry is fast and dynamic." And you just know he's not parroting a company line when he imparts a story about being made responsible for fixing a breakdown to the flavour extraction plant one morning on arriving for work.

The task came out of the blue following a failure during the night shift. Davies had originally been planning to carry out a bit of process modelling work that day. The flavour extraction unit was an area of the factory with which he was unfamiliar and the cost of any delay in getting it back up and running would have been huge. So, no pressure then. As Davies discovered, he was on a very quick learning curve!

Challenge and reward

Davies's reward from the site director for a successful outcome was to be put in charge of an even bigger £250,000 project to upgrade the factory's water treatment plant.

A scary scenario? Well, maybe. But he didn't seem phased by suddenly being presented with such huge responsibilities. And, as his employer had promised, he would be doing a real job. Part of the attraction, he said, is working with people at a variety of levels -- everyone from operations staff to the site director.

As the Cifad manufacturing day progressed what became clear, was the passion speakers had for their jobs. Whether the role is within new product development, processing or logistics, these people really love their jobs.

And it's not just about being an obsessive foodie, either -- although some are!

Paddy Hughes, logistics manager for Gü Chocolate (and formerly with Tesco) and Mark Catley, general manager for Christian Salvesen, simply oozed passion about getting the right products to the right place on time.

As Catley said, in logistics if you get it wrong "you are everyone's enemy", but nobody notices when it's right. But, he added: "There's no better job."

Hughes agreed. "Beware if you enter the food industry -- especially the supply chain," he warned. "You never switch off." He illustrated this point by describing his habit of visiting supermarkets while on holiday and secretly straightening up his company's products in cabinets if they weren't being displayed to his satisfaction. Yet he still described it as a "dream job"

Chairman for the manufacturing day was Paul Wilkinson -- another very passionate advocate for the business. Wilkinson is chairman of the food and drink sector skills council Improve, chairman of food company Big Bear and he is also on the board of other food firms. Even after a lifetime in the business, he can't resist enthusing about the industry and its future promise.

"We believe we can compete and our jobs are not going to go to China," he assured the audience.

"If we have the right people, in the final analysis competitiveness will decide how good the food and drink industry is. It's an exciting opportunity for young people."

Putting the case for the retailers, were Alison Austin, head of product safety, integrity and environment at Sainsbury and Sean McCurley, category director at Tesco.

Both made clear -- had there been any doubt -- that those on the supply side do not have a monopoly when it comes to passion.

While Austin was quite measured in what Sainsbury expected of graduates employed, using video clips of recent graduates to support her case, McCurley was intentionally more provocative in stamping a tabloid headline on what Tesco wanted from its new recruits.

Austin said: "We do expect people to have technical competency, but we are really interested in people who are able to manage and cope with people ... you become monumentally good time managers and jugglers -- and problem solvers."

McCurley said effectively the same thing -- just a bit more picaresquely. He was also an unapologetic champion of the Tesco philosophy: "Whoever you go to, make sure the company knows its customers and it is buying brilliantly and selling cheaply."

New product development

To give the students a flavour of what the business was all about a number of case studies were presented to show how ideas for new products were translated into successful products on supermarket shelves. Or, as Carol Stewart, technical executive of Northern Foods put it: "Bringing new products to life."

Stewart was equally passionate about her sector of the food business and the challenges it presented. "Anyone can make a product, but the trick is to make it within limits and to QA standards, extremely well and extremely efficiently," she said.

Emphasising the point that to be successful, it was not good enough just to come up with a great idea for a tasty new product, Sun Valley's innovation and development chef Chris Jones and a colleague described the commercial background and production constraints that also needed to be met.

They used a case study which involved meeting a technical brief for developing a healthy meal for a single parent family designed to be eaten by both parent and children. It highlighted quite graphically the real-world demographic changes to which food manufacturers had to respond.

Stewart summed up the industry succinctly with the comment: "It's a complex business involving lots of planning."

In fact, Northern offers 15 undergraduate placement schemes each year of three, six and 12 months duration; and it takes on 20 graduates for its management training scheme.

"It's all about real roles and real responsibilities -- a proper job from the start," she said.

So proper jobs it is.FM

Related topics: People & Skills

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