The gauntlet has been thrown down to the food industry by a leading UK academic, who has asked: 'What exactly do you want from food science graduates?'
If firms take up his challenge, he's prepared to put his neck on the line and fight for radical changes to undergraduate training to create courses that provide the skills the industry is looking for. But it will only happen if manufacturers get involved ... and then support the new training schemes, once they're up and running.
As well as being a very smart research scientist, Andy Taylor, professor of flavour technology and head of food sciences at the University of Nottingham, is also a very pragmatic individual who recognises that to survive, tertiary education has to meet market needs in the courses it provides.
At the moment, though, there's a big problem, with a mismatch between supply and demand. While the industry is crying out about skills shortages, the number of home-grown undergraduates choosing traditional food science courses is declining - for some courses, numbers are in single figures, making imminent closure a reality. The latest figures show that around 15,000 fewer students started university this year since the introduction of tuition fees . Science courses have been particularly badly hit.
Taylor is well known within the world of food processing. He, and fellow academic, professor Peter Fryer from the University of Birmingham, collaborate on a number of research projects for Britain's food manufacturers. But Taylor is so concerned about declining interest in food science, that he took time out from his day job to address a group of senior managers from the industry at Food Manufacture's fourth HR Forum, sponsored by law firm Eversheds and held at Northern Foods' HQ in Leeds last month.
"We are not entirely satisfied with what we are doing regarding training for the food industry," Taylor told the group of HR professionals, who represented some of the UK's leading food manufacturing players. He posed the thorny question that many in academia had for too long tip-toed around: "Is the educational system meeting the needs of the UK food industry?"
Taylor said university departments offering food courses faced a stark future. He was particularly worried about the six departments offering "serious food science courses". However, while he was convinced of the continuing need for some very theoretically trained individuals, he also recognised that radical change was necessary in the way that BSc courses were structured. More practically trained individuals were also now required by industry, he acknowledged, and suggested options for change. If adopted, these would represent a sea-change in the content and format of courses currently on offer.
Skills training to meet demand
Taylor called for feedback from the industry in this important debate. However, the thrust of his argument was to move away from traditional, three-year BSc courses - primarily academically-led - to shorter courses, with much greater practical content. While these could lead to a full degree, they didn't necessarily have to.
Taylor proposed that undergraduates spent more frequent periods on site-based work assignments and reinforced this with classroom-based learning. Unlike the old four-year sandwich-type degree courses (now, largely, out of favour), which involved a middle year spent in industry, he suggested shorter industrial placements in the first year of perhaps two months' duration, interspersed with periods back in the classroom.
So, for example, after an initial one month at university receiving basic training, a student might spend two months working on a pork pie production line with the specific aim of studying hazard analysis critical control point systems, before returning to college to reinforce the knowledge gained in the factory environment. The process would then be repeated again and again with the same company. In this way companies would benefit from unpaid student time, while students would gain essential industrial experience.
After a year, the student would have accrued sufficient knowledge to make a positive contribution to the company, should they be offered permanent employment. However, should they decide to continue studying for a further two years to achieve a full BSc degree, the company might decide to sponsor them or employ them under a similar arrangement to that in the initial year.
Taylor also suggested that by providing training at regional centres, local to where students lived, it would help to contain costs, while making industrial connections more convenient for all concerned.
Taylor recognised there were practical problems to overcome in his proposals - not least regarding insurance cover for student placements. There were also questions of what would happen if student performance proved unsatisfactory; the need for the university to employ staff with different skill sets; and questions as to whether courses would attract enough students to make them viable.
However, one of the biggest issues was whether industry would support such an initiative. "We have had our fingers burnt before, so we will need your buy-in," he said.
In general, Taylor's ideas were well received. Some concerns were raised about the adequacy of time spent in industrial placement, while others expressed concerns about excessive competition between different learning providers, when industry sought a single point of contact for its training needs.
Nevertheless, forum members were impressed by Taylor's willingness to adapt his training proposals to address the issue of interpersonal skill deficiencies, which were said to be a problem with some employees these days.
A common complaint was that while graduates might possess the requisite technical skills, they often fell down when it came to "common sense". Some, it was argued, were unable to communicate adequately with other team members and work towards common goals. Such criticism follows recent well-publicised complaints about the poor basic literacy and numeracy skills of many school-leavers.
Generalists not specialists
Reporting back from a forum sub-group charged with examining Taylor's proposals, Nestlé HR business partner Naomi White said: "Industry has changed a lot and we are looking for generalist roles - rounded people with the right attitudes and life skills."
She suggested that universities tended to turn out specialists that industry no longer required. Her group also felt the UK could learn from the way food industry training was provided in France.
Taylor's proposals come at a particularly appropriate time. David Hickman, operational manager for sector skills council Improve, who chaired the forum, said that under the Sectors Skills Agreements, there would be "fundamental changes" in the way skills were delivered. In future, he said, training would be much more employer led. It's all about "getting the right people, with the right skills in the right place at the right time", he added.
Part of the problem with attracting the right calibre of individual into food manufacturing is the poor esteem in which the industry is generally held. It is a recurring theme that continues to hit recruitment.
"We feel it in the academic world," reported Taylor. "We need more and better trained people to ensure we deliver the expectations of the government [in formulating healthier and safe food]." But, he added: "Fewer new people are attracted to the food industry because of adverse perceptions. We are having real problems attracting people to our courses."
A forum sub-group tasked with addressing this thorny issue felt the industry needed champions to present a more positive image in the face of a very hostile media.
Reporting back for the group, Tracey Backrath, senior training advisor for Young's Bluecrest, said the Food and Drink Federation needed to raise the industry's profile and, in conjunction with retailers, take the lead in presenting the positive side of food manufacture. At the same time, the group felt that food companies needed to open their doors more to young people to highlight the career opportunities that existed.
"We need to approach people at a young age to change the way they feel about the food industry," said Backrath.
Part of the problem, said Taylor, was the negative image of "working in a factory". Young people found the prospects of unsociable shift work "scary". There was, he said, a poor image of the sector and a lack of information in schools about career opportunities. The situation was made worse by parents' out-of-date perceptions of "domestic science" teaching in school. And, on top of all that, there were the huge debts of up to £20,000 that graduates were now likely to incur should they select a food science course at university.
So, how do you make a career in food more attractive to today's bright young things?
One option Nottingham is considering for next year is lowering the fees it charges for students taking food science so that it can better compete with the likes of psychology, media studies and biology.
However, Taylor controversially suggested that skills shortages might one day come to the aid of food science by offering improved remuneration and career prospects for those studying it. The trouble is, by that time a number of food science departments would have gone to the wall. And those remaining would be far more dependent on overseas students. FM