In October 2012 Nottingham Trent University launched a higher level food sciences apprenticeship with the intention of attracting college leavers interested in food science, as well as people already working in the industry.

This earn-while-you-learn alternative study course is designed to make a higher level qualification in food science technology accessible and cost efficient for those who can’t afford to give up their current job, but who want to take their career further, and for college leavers daunted by the thought of costly university fees and earning no money.

Course leader Sara Poulson, who has been lecturing at Nottingham Trent University for ten years in food science law and who is also a qualified lawyer, says the course addresses what she believes to be a shortage of highly qualified individuals in the industry. Here she talks about which food science career routes this course supports and the benefits of on-the-job training and in-class study.

Why did Nottingham Trent University decide to launch a higher level apprenticeship in food science and technology?

Sara Poulson: In terms of our background, Nottingham Trent University has a long pedigree in food science technology provision at varying levels. It has been taught here on and off for the last thirty or forty years or so.

The foundation degree in food science and technology that we provide as part of the higher level apprenticeship was designed very much with the food industry in mind, in terms of the mode of delivery and in terms of the content.

It’s a part-time course done on a day release basis that combines theory with practical vocational skills. Having developed the foundation programme, linking it to the higher level programme was just a logical progression.

What kind of response have you had to the course so far?

SP: Well, positive in terms of people we have spoken to in the industry. They have been enthusiastic about it and in favour of it.

Obviously it is at a fledgling stage currently, so this year when we launched the higher apprenticeship programme we got relatively small numbers on it [six people currently take this year’s course], but that is a lead into expanding as news of the course gets out there in the wider domain.

Have employers shown a willingness to sponsor individuals for the entire two-and-a-half years of the programme?

"Nottingham Trent University has a long pedigree in food science technology provision."

SP: In the current group we have a number of them being sponsored by their employer and in that instance the employer is providing full sponsorship -100% of the fees. But the issue of sponsorship is down to negotiation between employers and the employees.

We would advocate an element of sponsorship by an employer, but in these financial times the employer might not be able to do it. I would mention that student loans are available for our programme. Employers could explore partial funding or sharing the fees.

Quite often we get the question asked that surely an employer doesn’t want to give up an employees time, but actually that tends not be the response we get from the industry.

What is the benefit of combined on-the-job-training and academic studies?

SP: We have a phrase we use here, ‘grow your own talent’. There is a shortage of graduate food scientists in the food industry, so they [employers] are finding it difficult to find graduate level people.

"We have a phrase we use here, ‘grow your own talent’."

The alternative is to take youngsters with potential, train them in your company’s way of doing things and in your particular area, develop their academic skills and their vocational skills elsewhere. You end up with what you wanted in the first place – a skilled graduate, but you’ve grown them yourself.

From an employee’s point of view, it’s expensive to go to university and maybe for a student they don’t feel they are able to go and get themselves into loads of debt, a graduate programme like this gives them the option of getting their foot on the career ladder.

They’re learning and earning, there is a balance. This course is trying to balance learning and understanding of the science with more practical skills.

What key skills will they take away?

SP: They take away a good depth of knowledge of the chemical, physical [and] microbiological qualities of food, and they take away an understanding of different food processes and technological scientific impact of the processes. But they also, because we have a food processing hall here, where we have scaled down industrial equipment, do a lot in the lab, [of] hands-on work. They learn the theory then go on and do it, so they take practical hands-on laboratory skills with them.

When students leave, what kind of career path will this programme help them succeed in?

SP: What we’re aiming at are people who are going to progress into management in the food industry. Our course isn’t tailored to a particular discipline within the industry. What we’ve had in the past is that some people go into new product development; some people have gone on to be technical mangers or production managers, they’ve gone into the quality assurance side, some people have gone into the sourcing raw material side – so it’s kind of broad areas, and supervision, moving into management level.

Do you think there is a shortage in the industry of highly trained individuals?

"What we’re aiming at are people who are going to progress into management in the food industry."

SP: I may not be the right person to ask, but I can say this: over the years, historically, as a university we have offered degree programmes in food science and have always found it difficult to recruit the traditional three A level student school leaver. I can only conjecture a little bit as to why that is.

I think it may be, in part, due to the fact that the food industry isn’t understood by schools, by career advisors and so on. They tend to associate the food industry as being low grade, with not much in the way of career progression and they don’t realise, actually, the opposite is true.

I think there is a lot of education that needs to go on, maybe in terms of improving the profile of the industry, so that it does attract a good level of students. There needs to be more of a partnership between the food industry and universities to get the message out there.

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