Food apprenticeships built from the ground up at NCFM

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Vanessa Sutton: ‘We’re making an impact on the senior leadership capabilities of the food and drink sector’
Vanessa Sutton: ‘We’re making an impact on the senior leadership capabilities of the food and drink sector’
From its close work with food and drink manufacturers to its dedication to growing students’ skills from operators to senior positions, the National Centre for Food Manufacturing (NCFM) claims to provide a complete package for training the next generation of food industry workers.

Key points

While training bodies may vary in scope and size, generally, they cater for one part of a student’s journey. But according to programme leader and principal lecturer Vanessa Sutton, the National Centre for Food Manufacturing takes a different approach.

“I think we are unique in that we offer further and higher education, so we are able to grow our students’ roots at Level 2 or 3 courses to provide progression into the higher and degree apprenticeships at Level 5 and 6,”​ she explains.

“What we’ve done is map provisions, so you can start at Level 2 across a range of job roles and progress seamlessly upwards as your career develops through the apprenticeship. We’re pretty unusual in this, and our offer is very complete and robust.”

By working with students through Level 2 courses all the way to degree apprenticeships, the NCFM can be there for students on their journey from the bottom of the training ladder all the way up to senior positions. And if the volume of students passing through its doors is anything to go by, the all-encompassing ethos is proving a success.

“It’s not unusual for us to have seen learners that had started at Level 2 with us eight or nine years’ ago coming back onto degree apprenticeships,”​ says Sutton. “Over the years we’ve watched them grow into quite senior roles.”

Sutton says she “can’t think”​ of any major food business whose top team isn’t peppered with an NCFM-grown graduate. “They are everywhere – we’re making an impact on the senior leadership capabilities of the sector, locally and nationally.”

Biggest clusters of food manufacturing businesses (Back to top)

NCFM, University of Lincoln

Courses on offer:​ Level 2 courses to Level 6 degree apprenticeships in: technical, quality management and new product development; manufacturing and operations management; food supply chain and operation management; agri-produce and supply chain.
Student capacity:​ 110 students in higher and degree apprenticeships, 67 in further education apprenticeships.
Plans for the centre:​ A range of food engineering courses will launch in September, offering Level 3 to Level 6 apprenticeships, in association with the University of Lincoln’s School of Engineering. The provision has been a long time in the making, explains programme leader and principal lecturer Vanessa Sutton, having only recently received approval for the Level 5 and 6 courses. The centre is now looking to develop the Level 7 degree apprenticeship.

Operating as a satellite arm of the University of Lincoln, the NCFM is located in Holbeach, 50 miles south of the main campus, nestled within one of the biggest clusters of food manufacturing businesses in the UK.

“About 2,000 learners have come through a programme with us, whether that’s short courses, apprenticeships or degree apprenticeships, with everybody whom we support in their education employed in the food industry,”​ Sutton says.

“We’re joined at the hip with employers. All of our provision is developed jointly with them to enable them to make the most of the Apprenticeship Levy and promote the apprenticeship opportunities within their businesses.”

With this in mind, the NCFM has recently fully reworked the courses it offers, tailoring them to work hand in hand with the levy and the needs of food and drink manufacturers.

“We’ve completed a major transformation of our provision to develop new standards, so we had four degree apprenticeships operating from September 2017,”​ says Sutton. “We’ve developed our provision from scratch to fit the new apprenticeship standards.”

The NCFM has also been active in developing the BSc Food Science and Technology course, which now underpins its Level 6 apprenticeship. “Also, because there is no specific food manufacturing management standard, we’ve matched our BSc to underpin the Chartered Manager Degree Apprenticeship,”​ says Sutton.

In-depth range of training (Back to top)

The new courses draw upon the talent and expertise already in place at the campus to offer a broader and in-depth range of training to students, she adds.

“We’ve had to work very hard to reinvent, develop and deliver new provisions to meet the standards and employer expectations,”​ Sutton says. “It’s a major transformation of our provision, not a little tinker.”

Meanwhile, Sutton claims the NCFM’s higher and degree apprenticeships have attracted a growing number of young people into the food and drink industry, partly as a reflection of how businesses have campaigned to attract young talent.

“In the past, apprenticeships were perhaps wrongly perceived as for people with lower-level skills and abilities, not necessarily attracting higher-level individuals,” ​she suggests. “But that’s changing now.”

This change in perspective brings Sutton back to the Apprenticeship Levy, which she says has helped to align standards for apprenticeships across the industry.

“Prior to the Apprenticeship Levy, provision across the sector was a little fragmented​,” she says. “As an industry, we’ve not had a comprehensive offer to appeal to young people with career opportunities, with structured training at every level. Therefore, it’s been very hard to produce an industry stance and promote it as an industry opportunity.

“What the levy has done, along with the development of new provision from Levels 2 to 6 and hopefully Level 7, is that, as a sector, we’ve got a really good joined-up offer of education and work roles.”

Alternative to full-time university (Back to top)

The degree apprenticeships also provide an alternative to full-time university courses, allowing young people to pursue a career and earn while they learn.

“We now have something to sell to young people, which we possibly didn’t have in the past, and we’re in a much better position to make a good pitch to young people about career opportunities with high-level training and education opportunities as well,”​ suggests Sutton.

“As such, we are beginning to make an impact across the sector, with more young people aware of our industry.”

Of course, it isn’t just young people who seek out the NCFM’s apprenticeships. According to Sutton, just as many food and drink firms send their experienced employees to learn new skills.

Ultimately, having access to funds through the Apprenticeship Levy has prompted manufacturers to transform their workforces, as well as look to bring fresh young talent into the business.

“Employers are certainly majoring on ‘what can I do with my existing workforce’, as well as looking outside of the box and bringing in young people when they might not have been doing so in the past.”

It’s a trend from which NFCM, and the food industry in general, can only benefit.

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