The UK food and drink manufacturing sector employs more than half a billion people. It's dynamic, fast-paced, and incredibly varied, with jobs on offer in almost every academic and professional discipline, from microbiology, chemistry and nutrition to logistics, engineering, IT, design and marketing.
By rights, therefore, it should be well up the priority list when children start thinking about choosing a career.
Pay a visit to a GCSE food technology class, however, and the chances of encountering anyone who can think of a single food industry job apart from 'chef' are virtually nil.
And more often than not, the simple reason for this is that teachers are also in the dark about the opportunities on offer, with little or no concept of modern industrial food practice and a background that's more likely to be in home economics or craft and design than science, engineering or technology.
Despite all the hard work done in the last couple of years to boost links between industry and education, most teachers do not have any contact with food manufacturers and teach 'industrial practice' with 10-year old videos and a wing and a prayer.
They are also battling against a tacitly held belief of many students, parents and universities that food technology lacks the intellectual rigour of more 'academic' subjects, and should be avoided by more able students.
These suspicions were recently confirmed when St Bede's school in Redhill was contacted by a university admissions department questioning the 'academic nature' of the food technology A-level on a student's application form, says Sandra Cornford, the school's head of food technology. "There is definitely still a perception that it's a soft option."
Angela Tudor, head of food technology at Sundorne School in Shropshire, says the fact that food is currently part of the design & technology course for years 7-9, and not a subject in its own right, doesn't help.
Nevertheless, putting 'technology' in the title has at least helped tackle the stigma associated with its predecessors home economics and domestic science, and potentially made the subject more appealing to a broader range of students, she says.
The biggest headache for most teachers, she claims, is a new requirement in the curriculum to teach industrial practice. "Basically, you can't do it in a classroom with 30 kids."
However, the prospect of setting up a visit to a local food manufacturer to see commercial food production first hand is equally challenging. Not least because trooping a class full of 15-year-olds through a factory is a health, safety and hygiene nightmare that most manufacturers can do without, she points out.
Bridging the gulf between schools and food businesses is in part the responsibility of Centres for Vocational Excellence (COVEs), says Jane Bondar, careers advisor at food sector skills council Improve.
However, there is only a handful of food manufacturing COVES across the country, and resources are extremely thin on the ground, she says: "It's so frustrating. I'm battling against years of neglect."
Manufacturers like Greencore and Betty's and Taylors of Harrogate have done fantastic work with local schools, but links are generally ad hoc, she admits. "Conversion rates from GCSE to A-level and from A-level to degrees in food science are appalling. Many schools say they can't offer food technology at all because they don't have the facilities for practical work. If there were more COVEs, then they could provide the facilities schools need."
The equally worrying trend where manufacturers looking for technicians, manufacturing engineers, food technologists and scientists, are concerned, however, is the lack of pupils studying chemistry, physics and maths at A-level, which is also responsible for the dearth of applicants to food science or related degree courses, claims Dr Tony Mutukumira at Pershore College/University College Worcester (see page 61).
"It's no coincidence that a third of students doing food science at Reading University are from overseas, because these students have the science skills. But many of them don't stay here, which doesn't help UK employers."
When children do actually get to see how food is made on an industrial scale, they really enjoy it, says Janet Beardmore, COVE development co-ordinator at Reaseheath College. "We recently ran a schools challenge at our accredited food factory at Reaseheath with Dairy Crest, New Primebake and 25 pupils from Brine Leas school in Nantwich.
"The brief was to produce a cheese-topped snack. The children did everything, from formulation, to nutrition, packaging design, marketing and costing.We would love to do this regularly, but we don't have the money."
Given that entrants to food-related courses at UK universities have plummeted from 700 in 1998 to less than 300 in 2003, initiatives like this have never been more important, she says. "The pupils go back to school enthusing about the industry because they know that it's not all blue hats and white coats."
However, a more pressing problem is the drop off in the number of new applicants to teach food technology each year, says Cornford at St Bede's."When we advertised for a new member of staff last year, we didn't get a single application, and we have fantastic facilities here compared to many schools.
"Most of the food technology teachers I meet are my age [50s]. What's going to happen when we retire?" FM