Appetite for success: food and drink industry careers for engineering graduates

Written by: Ellie Zolfagharifard, Stephen Harris
Published on: 11 Mar 2015

Food Industry article image 1
Source: Pepsico

Why work in food and drink?

It’s a near recession-proof industry that’s vital to the UK economy

Food and drink are among the most important things for a country to make and, unlike military aircraft or luxury cars, will always be in high demand. As such, jobs in this sector are less susceptible to the whims of government spending or problems in the economy. In fact food and drink, which at 15 per cent of the UK’s production output represents the country’s single largest manufacturing sector, suffered the least in the recent recession and was quickest to return to strength compared to the rest of the industry.

It’s in desperate need of good engineers

The government wants the industry to grow 20 per cent by 2020, and tens of thousands of highly skilled new employees will be needed to meet this goal. But even now, companies are struggling to fill one in five food scientist and food engineer vacancies in the UK. ‘The skill gap needs to be filled for the industry to compete, not only at a national level but on a global scale, particularly in the areas of food science and technology,’ according to Kraft Foods, the world’s second largest food company.

It offers a varied and challenging career

Devising and improving ways to make food and drinks isn’t about tweaking recipes, although taste is a vital factor in every product. Engineers are needed to work on the smell, texture and environmental implications of a product as well as its packaging, efficiency and safety. With the country facing an obesity crisis, developing ways to make food healthier but still cheap and tasty is imperative for our future.

Tracey Foster is the manufacturing director at Walkers Crisps and is responsible for running the brand’s production site. ‘I love it because it is fast-paced, everything is different, we make a lot that goes right to consumers and we’re the number one brand, which I feel gives me a connection to the wider world,’ she says.

Food Industry article image 2
Engineers are vital in maintaining the quality, cost and flavour of our food supplies.

What exactly does the sector do?

It develops and launches more than 8,000 new products each year

The UK was the first to introduce frozen food, ready meals and instant coffee - so those (like engineering students) prone to pulling all-nighters to get their work done have a lot to be grateful for. This is largely down to the fact that it invests more than £1.1 billion a year on research and development - a similar amount to the car industry.

For instance, earlier this year, Unilever opened a £6.9 million research centre at Liverpool Science Park which will use robotic automation to radically improve the speed and quality of how products are developed and designed.

It is leading the way in energy efficient technologies

For a food and drinks manufacturer, using less energy means saving money as well as saving the environment. So tackling efficiency is high on the priorities of most food and drink manufacturers.  Since 1990 the sector in the UK has reduced its CO2 emissions by at least 11 per cent.

‘By 2020, we have a global aim to reduce our direct and indirect emissions of gases impacting on the climate by 25 per cent,’ says Iain MacDougall, group energy manager of Arla Foods UK, whose products include Anchor Butter and Lurpak.

It looks after the quality and safety of food and drinks throughout the UK

Food and drink produced in this country is among the safest and most hygienic in the world. As well as this, advanced diagnostics and use of the latest technology means the UK is able to monitor imported foods and ingredients at UK ports - increasingly important after the imported horse meat scandal of 2013.

Scientists and engineers from the UK are in demand to help deal with contaminations in other countries.  In the event of a contamination, the UK is the only country where all products from specific manufacturing batches can be removed from stores within two hours.

‘We have to make sure people are kept safe, the quality of the brand must be fabulous, and to make that work we have to be able to make the product and keep maintenance paramount,’ says Foster.

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Modern food manufacturing requires complex technology and automation.

What kind of jobs are on offer?
For many, thinking about a job in the food and drinks industry conjures up images of overalls, hairnets and large production lines in factories. And although these are part of the industry - as our photos show – engineers, just like in all sectors, are just if not more likely to work in an office or high-tech lab environment.

Essentially, food and drink engineers are the people who combine a knowledge of nutrition with technical engineering expertise to develop the products themselves as well as the processes that create them. That means planning, designing and running a factory’s manufacturing equipment but also helping to shape what a new product looks, feels and tastes like.

‘Some of our graduate engineers are responsible for the maintenance, upkeep and operation of entire kit on the factory floor and are responsible for the small technical team who carry out the work,’ says Foster. ‘It’s a very practical, hands-on, high-pressure role.

‘But if they like to take on specific projects and, say, install £3m of heat exchanger or fryer equipment we have project management roles graduates can come into. And we have more general engineering roles that look after our core programme and look at where we need to be over the next two or three years, really getting us prepared for the future in a strategic role.’

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Source: Nestle
Major manufacturers such as Nestle have facilities across the country.

And where are they?
Britain is an ideal location for global food and drink companies. According to a survey by Cambridge University, around two thirds of food and drink manufacturers from a random sample have over 75 per cent of their production in the UK. Research is even more concentrated with 78 per cent of companies having over 75 per cent of their research carried out in the UK.

Food and drink manufacturers also have bases all over the country. Kraft Foods for instance, has centres in Dublin, Marlbrook, Chirk, Sheffield, Banbury, Reading, Uxbridge and Crediton. Meanwhile, Nestlé has factories in Girvan, Dalston, Fawdon, York, Halifax, Tutbury and Hayes.

But there is also big growth among smaller producers, for example with the explosion of micro-breweries and the trend for high-quality organic products. These companies can be found in almost every kind of location, from the centre of big cities to entirely rural environments near the source of the food.