Graduate Recruitment: A taste for the food industry: Companies are desperate for recruits, says George Turnbull, but they must increase awareness in schools as a first step

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The Independent Online
With virtually all their graduates being snapped up by eager employers each year - and up to 50 per cent of their students sponsored by industry - degree courses in food science and technology would seem to offer a popular option for A- level students entering higher education. But it isn't. And many of the courses are undersubscribed.

The food industry is so concerned that they collectively sponsor lower sixth-form students to attend familiarisation courses at universities and colleges throughout the country. The University of Reading was first to introduce these courses, and eight years later many of their food science and technology students come from that source.

Matthew Frost, one of this year's graduate helpers, got such a buzz when he attended a course by chance in 1989, that he was able to target food technology as his chosen path to employment. With A- levels in biology, chemistry and mathematics he returned to Reading a year later as an undergraduate. He now has a 2:1 honours degree and will begin his career with Lucas Ingredients which, along with Golden Wonder, Homepride and Spillers, is part of the Dalgety Group. But he is no stranger to that company, having been sponsored by them throughout his course.

And it was the same buzz that sixth-former Nick Robinson, from Cranbrook School, was seeking on this year's course. 'Pure chemistry is boring,' he says, 'and I am looking for something a bit more exciting.' He is studying for A-levels in biology, chemistry and economics. Future employment prospects were also uppermost in Nick's mind, as he was aware that more students were now entering higher education and that the job market would not necessarily expand to meet the increased demand expected, when he graduates.

But competition for jobs is already fierce, according to figures released by one of the country's biggest food manufacturers United Biscuits. With 35,000 employees throughout the UK and overseas, a recent vacancy for a graduate in the personnel department attracted 652 applicants. Marketing jobs for graduates have a rate of 166 applicants per vacancy, whereas food manufacturing has only 52.

And although, like most employers now, they take graduates from any discipline and train them for specific jobs, the vocational nature of food technology and science courses has an added appeal to the company - not only for food manufacturing jobs, but in other areas, including sales, marketing, finance and information technology. They can compete for jobs outside the industry too, on an equal basis with other graduates.

''Food science and technology courses do have an image problem,' admits Professor Geoffrey Campbell-Platt, head of the department of food science and technology at Reading. 'There is a lack of awareness in our schools as to what food science and technology is. Mistakenly the courses are often seen merely as an extension of home economics or domestic science. What we need in a student is a strong understanding of science and mathematics at A-level as a basic entrance requirement, like any other science degree course. These form the basis of our degree courses,' he said.

The professor sees it as a sad reflection on our society that the University of Reading, with its worldwide reputation and strength in agriculture and food, currently has more undergraduate applicants to study law than there are for all their food and agriculture courses combined. And although his department could accommodate 100 new undergraduates this year there will only be about 70 beginning courses. This does not bode well for the industry, as there are currently 'insufficient food scientists and technologists graduating from universities, to meet the requirements of the industry into the next century', Professor Campbell-Platt concludes. And it is this collective concern within the industry which causes companies such as United Biscuits to sponsor sixth-form students on week-long residential courses. At pounds 450 per student it isn't cheap - but it is necessary, according to Graham Parker, United Biscuit's director of community affairs.

'A lot of people don't understand how food is made. They've even forgotten that peas grow in pods, because they more usually see them coming from a tin or a packet. It's companies like ours that put them there and we need bright young graduates in the food manufacturing area, to help us do it. We have a major task on our hands communicating the exciting career structures and opportunities available within the industry,' he said.

So graduate recruitment - or the 'milk round' - begins early at Reading, with companies attempting to entice students before they even sit their A-levels. And milk again plays its part on the sixth formers course: It's tested for quality and effects when heated. Other areas of food production are investigated also, in detail, including how the peas get from the pod to the packet. The students do practical work, and visit factories, research and development facilities and retailers. Challenges are undertaken in groups where new products are created to encompass nutrition, processing, marketing, packaging and environmental issues - just like they are in the industry.

Of the 70 attending this year's summer school, it is, as yet, unclear how many will apply for food-related courses next year. In previous years up to 65 per cent have gone directly to Reading and others have gone to similar courses elsewhere. But at least they are sure in the knowledge that peas come from a pod and that the food industry offers exciting opportunities with a statistically better chance of employment on graduating.

Their teachers will know this too, if they have taken advantage of the teachers' course which follows a week later. With sponsorship from the industry, 23 science teachers this year spent two days on a shortened version of the students' course. Gone, however, was the opportunity to play the management games to establish a sandwich production line, and the site visits, but the excitement was retained as they learned of the scope and interest that food production can provide, whilst teaching existing GCSE or A-level science courses.

The author is editor of 'Business Matters', published by The Associated Examining Board.

(Photograph omitted)