Without engineers, the ideas generated by food scientists in laboratories and development kitchens would never become a commercial reality. Similarly, removing the scientist from the equation would mean the engineer was left without a project to work on.
Acknowledging this, two University of Nottingham professors have set out to give their undergraduates a more complete understanding of the food and drink manufacturing system, and how specific job roles co-depend on each other and interact within it.
Despite coming from very different disciplines, associate professor of food science Emma Weston and associate professor of food process engineering Seamus Higgins devote time to teaching their students transferable skills, with the aim of helping them fully integrate into their eventual workplaces.
Nottingham’s core offering is undergraduate degrees in Food Science and Food Science & Nutrition, and those successful are given the opportunity to extend their learning into an integrated master’s degree.
A master’s degree in Food Process Engineering, meanwhile, was launched by Higgins last year. Each course builds on Nottingham’s Future Food research initiative, which aims to address the challenge of feeding a growing population in a changing world.
Higgins says the more rounded approach to learning applies in each course. “As well as learning about the fundamentals of food or food engineering processes, students are taught a lot more of so-called soft skills that wouldn’t have applied before,” says Higgins. “We’re talking about being able to understand leadership, to drive a team, to project-manage, and to develop food processing engineering theory. Last, but not least, we strive to make them use their initiative and become confident independent learners, because change is constant.”
Weston has spent the past four years trying to fully understand the types of skills food manufacturers are looking for in graduate recruits beyond the technical skills that are “part and parcel” of their courses. Through surveys, interviews and one-to-one group sessions with students, she has helped develop a framework for graduates to understand all the different career options in the food industry and the types of competencies required for each particular type of role.
“This focuses on how they behave and what types of skills might be desirable to perform well in the workplace, including commercial awareness, entrepreneurship and personable skills,” Weston explains. “We’ve now mapped all of our undergraduate courses against that framework of 48 elements and checked what exactly we are delivering and where throughout their course.”
Seamus Higgins, associate professor of food process engineering
Higgins has been involved in the food industry for the best part of 25 years, and has a wealth of experience in engineering roles throughout the world. He joined Nottingham with three other professors two years ago to launch the university’s master’s degree in Food Process Engineering.
Emma Weston, associate professor in food sciences
Having held senior roles at Associated British Foods, United Biscuits and Premier Foods, Weston can be considered an industry veteran. She has spent the last 11 years at Nottingham developing its food science courses, after starting her career at the university as a teaching assistant.
At the engineering end of food production, Higgins stresses the importance of food industry engineers understanding the bigger picture in which their roles play a part. Armed with a broader knowledge of the food industry outside their specific role, he believes engineers of tomorrow are in a better position to innovate and adapt to the constant change and uncertainty the industry faces.
“In the past, these skills were learned on the job, but with the labour pool becoming ever shallower, new graduates are expected to hit the ground running,” Higgins says. “They no longer have the time to learn the life skills that are important for a successful career.”
For engineering students, this means becoming more integrated in areas of the business they wouldn’t have interacted with in the past, due to the “siloed nature” in which food companies used to operate. “You would have your production guys, your marketing guys, your accountant guys – and they would never talk to each other,” explains Higgins.
“Particularly in the food industry, the engineering side of it evolved and developed into a maintenance function and the ethos was if we are doing new projects, a consultant could be brought in to help with such things.”
But with the pace of change, sparked in part by the rise of the hard discounters and increase in customers manufacturers have to supply, producers now need to look at how they can make the most of their staff. Any new graduate coming into the business should be a “change agent”, able to spot innovation at a moment’s notice, Higgins suggests.
To help facilitate this way of thinking, students on the Food Processing Engineering course take part in a newly developed accelerated design training programme, created to expand graduates’ understanding of the whole design process outside their eventual role in a food business.
“In the beginning, they think ‘thank god we didn’t do that’ or ‘what’s that?’ but then, 18 months later, they’re presenting their entire plan for a complete project,” Higgins adds. “It’s hard and fast learning, but there’s a huge feeling of achievement having done it.”
A global university, Nottingham has campuses in China and Malaysia – both of which were the first of their kind in their respective countries. But recent events, not least of all Brexit, have taken their toll on the number of European students applying for courses in the UK.
While this could be seen as a serious blow to an industry in desperate need of new recruits, Higgins sees one positive result – more exposure for the food industry. “The past two years have actually raised that awareness to the point where, whether Brexit happens or not, there has been much greater awareness around food and food production – be it imports, alternative supplies, or so on,” he explains. “That conversation has actually helped a lot of people in the industry.”
Whatever the outcome of Brexit, Nottingham’s efforts to nurture a new generation of adaptable and multi-skilled food and drink manufacture professionals, has to be warmly received by the industry.