Jobs to give you food for thought

From food-tasting to designing sexy underwear, retail offers exciting opportunities.
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The Independent Online

Imagine having a job that requires you to do nothing all day except eat. Perhaps you'd rather earn a living by watching models parade around in silky lingerie - or even by trying it on for size yourself. If this isn't enough to turn you on, how about working for a company that offers you cheap cinema tickets, subsidised skiing holidays and a 15 per cent annual bonus?

With perks like these, it's easy to understand why so many school-leavers and graduates are now opting for careers with retail giants such as Sainsbury's, Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. One in nine working people in the UK are now employed in the retail sector, according to the latest figures from the British Retail Consortium, with some 143,000 more entering it each year - 1,500 of them via graduate training schemes.

So just why are Britain's high street shopping chains - for so long the butt of jokes about surly cashiers and officious store managers - proving so popular with today's workforce? The answer appears to lie in the increasingly varied job opportunities, progression routes and fringe benefits offered by the industry.

Verity Bradley, 25, is employed by Sainsbury's as a "quality control home economist" (that's a food-taster to you and me). On a typical working day, she will spend her morning rustling up a roast, or warming up a selection of the company's own-brand pastries, and the afternoon sampling them. Not surprisingly, she loves her job.

"I eat a lot, and very rarely have to have a proper dinner when I get home," she confesses. "I'm a bit of a chocoholic, and I get to taste all the chocolate cakes. People are very jealous when they find out what I do."

At present, Bradley, who earned her foodie credentials with a cordon bleu training and a spell in restaurant management, is one of six full-time Sainsbury's tasters.

As well as testing existing products to ensure that they meet the right standards, it's also their job to devise new recipes for the company's various ranges, from its Basics economy brand to health-conscious Be Good to Yourself and organic options.

Aside from the growing variety of Sainsbury's career options, its other main attraction is its flexible working practices. In recent years, it has introduced "term-time" contracts for parents of young children, enabling them to earn the equivalent of a full-time salary by working only the weeks of the year, and hours of the day, that suit them.

All staff receive store discount cards, offering them 10 per cent reductions on any product (rising to 50 per cent over Christmas), and qualify for a generous pension scheme. The same is true of Tesco, which also gives its employees the chance to invest in up to three different share ownership packages.

At the John Lewis Partnership, parent company of the eponymous department stores and Waitrose supermarkets, workers enjoy similar benefits, as well as the added boon of a lucrative profit-share scheme. In a good year, everyone, from rookie sales staff to senior managers, receives bonuses worth up to 15 per cent of their salaries. There are numerous other perks, too, from subsidised ski breaks and two-for-one cinema deals to funding for anyone who enrols on an Open University degree.

The basic pay isn't bad, either: this year's 40 new graduate trainees will each start on £20,500, and they can expect to be earning substantially more by the time they complete the 12- to 18-month-long training programme.

Marks & Spencer, too, offers numerous benefits and varied job opportunities, from wine technologists to tinning specialists. Soozie Jenkinson, a 38-year-old fashion graduate, joined as an underwear designer in 1994, around the time the company first began trying to shed its baggy bloomers image. She is now its head of lingerie design.

Jenkinson's quest for inspiration regularly takes her around the globe. Among the influences she is currently drawing on are vintage Swiss embroidery styles, which she researched by spending days delving through archived images of early designs by the likes of Coco Chanel. As a reward for her efforts, she gets to try on the resulting lines first herself.

"Most of the time, we use Marks & Spencer models of suitable sizes to try the products on for fit and style," she says, "but as a designer, as well as a customer, it's really important that you try them on, too."

Whichever career route takes your fancy, one thing's for sure: high street retail has come a long way since the days of Grace Brothers.