“If companies were to offer students sponsored places, which were more common in the 1980s, young people would become attached to those companies, and have the opportunity for their work experience and summer holiday placements to be with the company,” Poole said.
“If a student is faced with three years of £9,000 [tuition fees] or a sponsored place where they only pay three years of £7,000, that’s an attractive proposition.”
Poole said the investment involved could be less than the current cost of graduate recruitment.
He told FoodManufacture.co.uk that it would be more efficient to steer students towards food science courses in this way than to retrain graduates with other science degrees.
“We’re interested in roles with a need for science and technology. It’s the area where we see the biggest skills gap,” he said.
“The sector has not been good at retaining people from university courses, who are finding roles outside of the UK, or recruited to non-food science roles, and that’s a great shame.
“If you take on a more generalist science student, you can develop them and adapt them to the needs of the company – but it does seem a shame when there are students out there that could be attracted but are going elsewhere.”
The Food & Drink Federation (FDF) said it hopes to develop a new degree course aimed at delivering a stream of graduates ready to join the food industry.
Angela Coleshill, FDF’s director of competitiveness, said graduate numbers were expected to fall as a result of higher tuition fees. “This could mean food and drink manufacturers will have to compete even harder against industries that are perceived to be more exciting and rewarding in order to attract gradate talent,” she said.
“We therefore want to work with one or possibly two universities to deliver FDF’s Graduate Ambition - a new degree course which will equip graduates with the skills that the food and drink industry requires.
“We’ve developed a menu of options to frame how our members might participate. Businesses may decide to sponsor individuals on the course, they may offer short-term work experience as part of a sandwich degree or agree to employ a certain percentage of graduates who have completed the course.
Poole acknowledged that the food industry “does have an image problem”, adding: “Most people only see the food sector for blue hairnets and wellies yet there are so many other roles that are nothing to do with that.”
He said the industry should work harder at providing case studies of career paths into managerial positions. He also acknowledged the importance of apprenticeships and welcomed the 50,000 on-the-job training programmes unveiled this summer by Department for Food and Rural Affairs, in partnership with the food industry.
“Given that we believe there will still not be enough people coming through from university system, getting people to work at apprentice level is pretty critical to the industry,” he said.