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Guest article

What does the UK's first food engineering degree mean for industry?

By Angela Coleshill , 09-Dec-2013

Angela Coleshill, FDF director of employment and skills
Angela Coleshill, FDF director of employment and skills

A new sector-specific engineering degree at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK aims to tackle the current skills gap in food engineering, with the first students starting next year.

In this guest article, director of employment and skills at the Food and Drink Federation, Angela Coleshill, explains what such a degree means for food industry employers.

Producing more from less, reducing waste and energy use while meeting growing global demand for food and creating tasty, healthy products are just a few of the innovation challenges that the food manufacturing industry needs engineers to work on.

To meet these challenges, we compete against the planes, trains and automobiles for each year’s engineering graduates. The graduates we are chasing are often unaware of the careers available in the UK’s largest manufacturing sector; there is also low awareness that we are a high-tech automated industry.  This is in part because traditional engineering degrees barely touch on food manufacturing. 

Statistics indicate that we need to attract 170,300 new recruits by 2020, motivating us to direct action on skills to fill this gap.  With students facing higher tuition fees, they are regularly seeking better value for money in terms of employment opportunities at the end of their higher education. With this in mind, a new engineering degree for the food industry offers a clear pathway for students to start a promising career in a fantastic industry.

This degree is dual purpose: Not only will it enable our industry to deliver a robust pipeline of engineering talent, specifically for our sector; it will also assist our industry in quality and innovation. Engineering graduates currently joining the industry have limited understanding of the food supply chain or the knowledge needed for hygienic manufacturing processes. This means graduates require extensive retraining before they can add real value to the business.  

For the first time in the UK, this degree will teach skills in mechanical engineering, process control and efficiency, automation and manufacturing systems, food science, food safety, and energy efficiency in the food industry. Critically for the industry, the engineering principles will be directly applied to food and drink manufacture and put into practice through paid work placements throughout the four-year course.  Students will design, implement and analyse sophisticated process and control systems in the most energy efficient, environmental and economical way.

As a result, food and drink businesses will not only be recruiting work-ready graduates, they will have the necessary skills to tackle the innovation challenges we must meet.  Sustainability will be ingrained in the graduates and they will have been exposed to the financial justification, management and leadership skills that turn good ideas into reality within business.

Today, the first applications are in and in 2014 the first students on this course will start their familiarisation with the high-tech kit they will work with during the degree.

But we are not over the finish line. We need to attract graduates onto the course in addition to the experienced engineers we will need to recruit before the Sheffield Hallam graduates start to fill the gap.  

To tell a convincing story to young people that we are high-tech and committed for the long term to doing the right thing on the big issues such as climate change and obesity we need industry to come together again and set a clear vision for innovation. Collaborating to work together on pre-competitive research is the only way to deliver the kind of transformative technology the industry must have to remain sustainable and competitive. 

The lure of an industry that is able to promise big things is how we will recruit the talent to deliver the vision – a very virtuous circle.

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