The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is developing the UK’s first food engineering degree in response to a “scary” shortage of young people and women in food science.
The four-year Masters degree at Sheffield Hallam University will start in September 2014.
The food manufacturing workforce is two-thirds male, with a mere 5.5% of technical roles within the industry filled by women, said Angela Coleshill, director of employment and skills, FDF.
The imbalance is made worse by manufacturers employing an ageing population, she said. “In food engineering, 65% of engineers are over 50. Up to 30% will retire in the next 15 years. Some companies have as many as 95% of their engineers over 50. It is quite scary.”
Not 'all hairnets and wellies'
Without a dedicated degree, students fail to consider food engineering as a career, said Coleshill:
“As a sector we tend to go to people who are looking at engineering generally, and try to convert them to come and work in the industry.
“That in itself is fine but it has its own unique challenges, because food needs from an engineering perspective are sometimes quite different.
“We are quite a fast-moving consumer goods industry, and we need a certain type of engineer. So we decided to work collaboratively with academia and industry to develop something fit for industry needs.”
FDF is running two campaigns to encourage students to consider food engineering.
“Graduate Excellence” targets 17-18 year-olds currently studying for their final exams, and for children aged 10-11, a campaign called “Taste Success” busts myths about the food industry.
School pupils think “it’s dirty, it’s all hairnets and wellies,” said Coleshill. “It’s actually very technologically advanced, and innovative.”
'Ever wondered how they get the bubbles in a chocolate bar? Engineering'
To capture young students’ imagination, FDF asks them to imagine how bubbles are created in chocolate bars and bread. The answer – engineering – is surprising to many.
Visits are planned for Year 13 female pupils to Coca Cola Enterprises in Wakefield, Yorkshire on September 30, Mondelez in Sheffield on October 16, William Jackson (owner of Aunt Bessie’s) on October 17, and to another event in Rotherham in October.
“When you’re around young people and they see the industry, they’re surprised at how automated it is and the volume of products that go through production,” Coleshill told FoodProductionDaily.com. “They’re often quite surprised by the level of technology in an industrial setting, and how clean it is.”
‘A male domain’
Female representation in the food industries is much lower in the UK than the rest of Europe, said FDF’s director of employment and skills.
“Girls in education are not necessarily making the choices early on to study Maths and Physics in the way they would need to in order to develop career in engineering,” said Coleshill.
“We need more role models for young girls. In the school environment it tends to be more of a male domain.”
Bringing more women into the industry would benefit product innovation, said Coleshill. “If you have better balance, you’re more likely to have a creative solution.
“I also think females within the industry tend to bring more effective ‘softer skills’: influencing, people management, coaching. And that really is necessary for our industry,” she added.
Coleshill said women entering the “male-dominated” engineering field would need “confidence and the right attitude” as well as technical qualifications:
“Often young girls are too modest, and not really pushing themselves, and they need to be helped with that.”