For a student studying Food Science or Nutrition & Food Science, a year in industry is a fantastic opportunity to experience life in a fast paced sector. Placement students can use science and innovation to solve problems that are current and relevant.
“It’s been the best thing I’ve done throughout my degree” – Student
Just as importantly, placements show students how many opportunities exist and the diversity of career opportunities they can have in food science. I’ve found that not many students realise how extensive the range of employers in the food economy is. In fact, many students are not even aware that Tesco don’t have their own mini factories in the back of their stores making products but that there is a whole other industry of manufacturers in the UK making products for retailers, with specialised ingredient and raw materials specialists supplying the manufacturers.
Placement opportunities that are available to students studying Food Science or Nutrition & Food Science are exciting, varied and even better: there are plenty of them.
One of the largest group to recruit Food Science and Nutrition and Food Science students are the retailers. M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose for example all offer fantastic yearlong placements.
These opportunities can be as product technologists or in new product development or more technical based roles.
“Now I’ve seen the food industry and know I definitely want to work there, it’s given me the passion for it.” – Student
The roles with the retailer are great for giving students experience of managing multiple projects – they may be given responsibility for a product area, such as gluten free bread, and need to work with the various suppliers who’ve been tasked with a brief to produce a new product.
Having ownership of a product category gives the students a huge level of responsibility and very quickly the students are given experience of how to communicate and deal with many people from a range of backgrounds, work to tight deadlines, manage multiple projects and deal with conflicting deadlines.
Another source of opportunities are the manufacturers themselves.
Being based in the Eat, I mean East Midlands we’re lucky that Samworth Brothers, 2 Sisters Food Group, Greencore, Premier Foods and Kerry Foods all have a number of manufacturing sites close to the university.
Taking a product concept that has been developed in the kitchen and manufacturing that on a large scale to create a reproducible and safe product poses huge challenges to the manufacturer. Ingredients used in the food industry can be heavy, dusty (think of flour and sugar) or just difficult – how do you move large amounts of water or rice for example around a factory?
A lot of the changes that occur during food processing are through chemical reactions. Placement students will need to use their knowledge of food chemistry to ensure this reaction is occurring at exactly the right rate at all times and that this reaction is perfectly controlled.
Students share their year in industry experience with the university through a portal. Pictured is Suzanne Davies on working at PepsiCo.
Just take producing a normal loaf of bread for example: from ensuring even bubble distribution and size, getting a consistent loaf height, colour of the crumb, ensuring the enzymes responsible for the bubble structure are perfectly controlled. This is all so complex that Sandra Hill, who is a Professor in starch processing, maintains “we’d never start making bread on a large scale now if we were today designing a new food product from scratch”.
Students can gain new understanding of systems, processes and the commercial implications of any decisions they make. Opportunities with manufacturers can really push students well and truly outside of their comfort zone and we’ve had students been tasked as being team leaders for a manufacturing line within a few months of starting their placement.
R&D and Innovation
“I think my biggest learning was just seeing R&D in situ – which is something that never gets covered at uni because it’s confidential” – Student
Fantastically for not only Food Science and Nutrition & Food Science but also science students in general, many of the large global food companies have R&D or technical centres of excellence in the UK.
Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, PepsiCo, Unilever, Allied British Foods and Arla all have R&D or Tehncial centres in the UK and there are many other specialised companies with UK bases; from flavour companies to specialised ingredients manufacturers and sensory companies such as Givaudan, Ingredion, Sensory Dimensions, Campden BRI, and Leatherhead.
One example of R&D work students can undertake is meeting the challenge of reducing the sugar and salt in food products. It’s not as simple as just taking an ingredient out as you have to make sure it still looks and tastes great, that the structure doesn’t collapse or the sensory input doesn’t change too much.
So students can be using their food chemistry knowledge to think of designing new structures with reduced sugar, fat and salt that can then deliver a particular flavour and mouth feel to a consumer.
Reflecting on Placements
Many of the benefits of these diverse placement opportunities are not realised until when the students are all back on campus and can compare their experiences. By hearing about each other’s experiences, the students can reflect on their experiences and also consider other opportunities that exist in the food industry.
“I’ve found that I can now link the examples I’m hearing in the lecture to my own experiences” – Student
From my experience, all of the companies who offer placements to Food Science and Nutrition & Food Science students take this responsibility seriously. They not only give the students real projects to work on but have structures in place to support the students including opportunities for training and experiencing other parts of the business.
The food industry faces a number of challenges in that it can be perceived by young people as being a low tech industry requiring low skills compared to other areas of science.
Industry organisations such as The Chilled Food Association (CFA), IGD, Institute for Food Science and Technology (IFST), Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and National Skills Academy for Food and Drink (NSFAD) are already doing so much to raise the awareness of young people in schools as to what diverse and exciting opportunities there are with schemes such as Chilled Careers, Feeding Britain’s Future, LoveFoodLoveScience, Taste Success, and Tasty Careers.
For university students, I really believe that the best way they find out about the range of food economy careers is through trying a work placement.
Judith Wayte manages undergraduate placements of students in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham. Follow her on her twitter @UoNBioscicareer
The NCUB Food Economy Task Force aims to develop a more competitive and sustainable agri-food sector in the UK through collaboration between business, higher education and other research bodies. The Task Force is chaired by former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King and Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire Quintin McKellar and its members include rings together leaders from across the UK Food Economy.