David Thomson: Plenty for school leavers to dine on with food and drink career

There are a variety of opportunities for scientists, technologists and engineers, writes David Thomson

Scientists and technologists responsible for enabling the industry to meet consumer demands for healthier products manufactured in the most sustainable way

Scotland’s food and drink manufacturing industry is highly regarded throughout the world. To stay ahead of competitors it needs to constantly innovate. As a result this sector offers a wide range of exciting and rewarding careers for school leavers, apprentices, graduates and those who are looking for a new challenge. In particular there are many opportunities for scientists, technologists and engineers driving innovation and growth.

We need engineers to create and maintain the sophisticated technology and advanced machinery that produce Scotland’s best-loved food and drink brands. We need scientists and technologists ensuring our high quality products remain safe, great tasting and nutritious. All are responsible for enabling the industry to meet consumer demands for healthier products manufactured in the most sustainable way.

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These are fantastic career opportunities - but the industry faces a skills gap in these vital roles – estimates reach as high as over 30,000 jobs available in the next ten years. Many young people, teachers, career advisors and parents are unaware that these opportunities exist, despite the fact that food and drink manufacturers represent 19 per cent of all Scottish manufacturing jobs. The Scottish Food and Drink Federation’s (SFDF) Schools Programme and Ambassadors Network work with industry and education partners to inspire Scotland’s future workforce to consider a career in food and drink.

SFDF’s Schools Programme, A Future in Food, supports long-term partnerships between schools and companies to help teachers deliver the school curriculum. Using food as a context for learning, pupils can clearly understand the real-world relevance of their school subjects - especially science, technology, engineering and maths. Our Ambassadors Network has 300 volunteers from across the food chain supporting career events, hosting site visits and running classroom workshops.

These programmes, funded by the Scottish Government and supported heavily by companies across Scotland, help students and other potential recruits better understand where their food comes from and how it is produced. Pupils, parents and teachers also find out about the careers available in food and drink, the routes to access them and the skills industry requires.

Inspiring people is our first aim, but we also need qualifications that support careers. SFDF is working with College Development Network, Education Scotland and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), developing and delivering new qualifications.

Together, we are supporting partnerships between schools, industry and local further education colleges. This helps pupils gain insight into the industry and an understanding of how they can get experience and qualifications that can lead to a career in food and drink. This approach has delivered the Skills for Work in Food Manufacturing, a National 5 qualification – the equivalent to Standard Grade Credit level. It provides an introduction that includes food safety, product concept to launch and the use of food science and technology in the industry. A number of school, industry and college partnerships are currently collaborating to deliver the Skills for Work qualification leading into the National Progression Award - notably Bathgate Academy, MacRae Livingston and West Lothian College.

The National Progression Award (NPA) in Food Manufacturing is SCQF Level 6 – equivalent to Higher. As well as learning how food is produced safely and in a sustainable way, students learn about various areas critical to industry including; meeting the demands of consumers and retailers and some of the relevant legislation and quality standards. Schools and colleges can work with an industry partner to give pupils a hands-on experience.

Colleges are delivering the NPA both as a stand-alone qualification and as a “bolt on” to other subjects such as laboratory skills, business studies, engineering or science. Helping students gain an extra advantage when entering the workplace or helping employees already working in the industry to advance their careers.

SQA is currently revising the next qualification – the HNC in Food Science and Technology. SQA aim to modernise it and reintroduce it into colleges as the next step from the NPA. Colleges also offer HNC/D qualifications in areas including Applied Sciences and Engineering and there are many opportunities for students to further their studies at university.

These great qualifications will give students the necessary skills to work in food and drink that will help to fill the future skills gap.

SFDF continues to work with partners to ensure Scotland’s schools, colleges and universities provide the qualifications that the food and drink industry needs to remain competitive and drive future growth. It is vital that the Scottish Government’s valued support for SFDF’s Schools and Ambassadors Programmes continues, to help inspire even more youngsters to take the thousands of job opportunities in Scotland’s vibrant and essential food and drink sector.

• David Thomson, CEO at the Scottish Food and Drink Federation