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The food and drink manufacturing industry is the single largest manufacturing sector in the UK, with an annual turnover of £95.4 billion. The industry employs some 400,000 people and this represents around 13% of the total manufacturing workforce in the UK. The food and drink industry also invests a lot into research and development, resulting in around 10,000 new products being introduced to the market each year. With such great demand and growth, now could be the time to begin your food industry graduate career.

Today's consumers have developed elaborate tastes and demand higher standards of service. People are looking for greater convenience in preparation, longer shop opening hours, complete food safety, sustainability in the environment, greater fairness throughout the food chain and more affordable produce.

The hospitality industry is an ever expanding part of the service sector, and one which is providing an increasing number of employment opportunities. Graduates get the opportunity to work in many different areas, including hotels, pub groups, leisure and night club venues, fast food outlets, conference centres, contract catering, airports, cruise liners, holiday companies and many more.

One thing is certain, this industry will continue to grow. Total consumer expenditure on food, drink and catering is currently valued at over £196 billion. The premium end of the market is the key driver for growth. We are increasingly valuing the non-price attributes of food and are willing to pay for quality, convenience, variety, status and sometimes even novelty. Differentiating between consumers and spotting future trends for new product development demands bright people who think ahead and understand the consumer mind.

The UK food and drink sector uses new technologies in IT, engineering and life sciences to meet consumer needs and increase productivity. The UK was the first to introduce frozen food, ready meals and instant coffee. Today, new product developments are changing the way people eat and drink and many companies in the UK are focusing on functional food development. This market is currently worth £1.2 billion in the UK and is growing. This customer demand for healthy food and foods with positive health benefits is still increasing. Whether for preventative or damage-limitation purposes, functional foods are growing. Demands for ethical manufacture, environmentally friendly production methods, organic production and authentic regional ingredients continue to shape the industry. Careers in food safety, ingredient science and nutrition, laboratory analysis and sensory testing are growing.

The retail industry is continuing to see a major shift towards more service choice for customers and self service opportunities. Non-food contributions are also a major focus and driver for the short term future. Technological developments will also continue, including electronic tagging in supply chain management and allowing changes to be understood and processed directly from head office.

Average Food Graduate Salary

Food Industry Graduate Career Path

The industry is growing by the day and as long as people need to eat it will continue. To survive in the market, companies must deliver what the consumer wants ahead of their commercial rivals. Because of widening consumer choices and interests there are now many different jobs that come under the umbrella of the food and catering industry. The chain starts with the agricultural side and production of the raw materials, passes through the manufacturing distribution and selling process and ends after the consumer has eaten the food.

The supply chain incorporates agriculture and fishing and roles range from procurement of raw goods to product distribution. Account manager positions ensure customer demands are met and a flow of production maintained. Ensuring that the areas of procurement, technical, sales, operations and logistics operate effectively together is fundamental in supply chain positions.

Efficiency drives have kept the manufacturing industry quite static, although a reduced number of good engineering graduates has put skills in short supply, increasing opportunities for progression particularly with medium sized firms. Nevertheless, reliability upon major buyers such as the supermarket chains has maintained a pressure for suppliers to stay competitive and innovative or risk closure and pressure to relocate overseas.

When beginning a food industry graduate career, it is important not to overlook opportunities with small and medium enterprises (accounting for over 96% of business' in the food and drink sector) or changing roles like sales. There is now the highest population of employees in sales at most companies, with a more strategic vision and opportunities for structured and rapid progression.

Distribution and warehousing concerns the effective distribution of international food supply when it is needed, where it is needed and how it is needed. Moving goods and services from one point in the supply chain to another involves planning, scheduling and stock management and includes roles like warehouse transportation, inventory management, systems control and strategic management plus support roles like those in finance, HR and IT. Distribution is either handled in-house by grocery retailers or manufacturers or is contracted out to a third party. Progression to director level is possible within around nine years. Supply chain roles also allow graduates to move across industries.

Food retail organisations range from localised niche markets to multinational supermarket chains where opportunities include department and store, through to area or regional, management. Although hours can be long and the work demanding, many retail managers thrive on this challenge, the rewards associated with success and also find that their commercial prowess, leadership and creativity are in demand with other industries. Head-hunters are never too far away. A graduate can be managing their own store within three to five years, akin to running your own business. Positions at head office, whilst fewer than those in stores, are also available, yet may require store-level experience first. Positions can include e-commerce, market research and public relations.

Graduates also can form careers in hotels, restaurants, pubs, clubs and bars and contract catering. Contract catering has grown by over 100% since 1990. It represents fine dining, production kitchens (school dining, hospitals etc) and in-company catering and food services, but overall depends upon excellent customer service and team management. Despite such expansion, the industry is also encouraging for would-be entrepreneurs and emerging concepts.

Those working in food service management, although not the highest paid aspect of the industry with hard work and routine long hours, are increasingly being rewarded with benefits, training and sometimes travel as their careers progress. Others genuinely thrive on the social and exciting aspects of the role and liken contract catering to running their own business. Opportunities also exist in managed pubs, clubs and bars. Around 75% of pubs are freehold or tenanted operations and can be classified as small to medium-sized organisations. This provides opportunities to move on to owning your own business through tenanted and leased operations. Some high flyers also go on to regional or head office roles.

The management of food and drink information is expanding and includes working for trade associations and in public relations. A growth in the demand for and provision of food-related consumer information has led to new sites such as Food Future and an increase in roles within communications, public affairs and information services. Market research careers are also available.

Good graduates are currently in high demand across the food and drink industry. Perhaps influenced by remaining traditional perceptions of the sector, the industry does not have a high profile amongst graduates when it comes to identifying their future careers.

Human resources and marketing are two of the most competitive and popular areas chosen by graduates assessing their career options. Opportunities in these areas within the food and drink industry are considerable yet, surprisingly, they are often overlooked.

Employers in the sector are currently working hard to change perceptions and to attract and retain talent. Many organisations across the industry offer structured graduate training programmes, particularly in manufacture and retail. Opportunities for graduates within food service and catering tend to be more ad-hoc and less structured, although once within the organisation, prospects can grow.

Many aspects of the food and drink industry are heavily driven by customer service. Putting the customer first can result in long hours and weekend working, particularly within hospitality and retail; a Monday to Friday, nine to five, working pattern is not really an option.

Opportunities for progression in the food and drink industry are generally very strong. Although entry into a variety of specialisms remains competitive, including HR, sales and engineering, a general shortage of skills offers great opportunities for early responsibility and accelerated development.

Over 20% of the top 100 companies are in food manufacturing, providing a broad spectrum of graduate opportunities. From specialist roles including food technologists and new product development managers, identifying innovative ideas to production management and packaging roles, there are also the common favourites with graduates such as engineering, quality assurance, human resource, marketing, sales and finance positions. Food manufacture is a high pressure environment with the need for teams to work well together and make sound business decisions. Roles within development are popular amongst graduates – a complex mix of nutrition, statistics, prediction, patents, legislation and logistics – yet good food science graduates are in short supply.

Qualifications and Skills Needed

What proportion of candidates as a percent we place into Food industry careers and the typical qualities graduate employers look for.

GRB Placements for Food by Degree

Typical Candidate Attributes

Working in the food, drink and catering sector requires commercial sense. Knowing what your customer wants, what motivates them and how to satisfy their needs in a profitable way is the key to success. This results in early responsibility, plain hard work, and, for graduates, the opportunity to make your mark early. This is not the industry for shy and retiring types. Most positions require excellent communication , team working and practical problem solving skills. Applicants should be motivated and enjoy being in a lively but pressured environment. You have to be patient and diplomatic with customers, even when you are at the end of a long shift. Personality and extra curricular activities are just as important as academic qualifications.

Employers are increasingly keen to recruit graduates with practical experience of the world of work and this sector in particular. Whether through working in your local pub, or stacking shelves, obtaining any work in this area can help you demonstrate you can work well with others, think on your feet, stay motivated and understand the industry.

Having a relevant degree can be advantageous, particularly with the leading organisations and brand names. For example, a degree in business, economics or statistics can demonstrate numeracy or business awareness for a marketing position. Similarly, some popular schemes invite applications from those with a 2:1 and above only. Other graduates are encouraged to contact a broad range of companies and identify alternative routes in. The food and drink industry is increasingly recognising and developing talented individuals already working for a firm and 'working your way up' is common, particularly in food service.

Food scientists and technologists usually enter the industry with a relevant degree. Postgraduate courses are also available for graduates, usually from a life science background.

Within food service, catering and hospitality there is a strong requirement for people who seek to deliver excellence. Although a hospitality-related degree is not essential, up to a year of related experience may be required to demonstrate you have what it takes to succeed. Creative job search and flexibility are also needed to make that break into the industry. A relevant degree could be useful in helping you to stand out and demonstrate you have the right skills mix.

Some positions, like product development and food technologist, require a relevant qualification. A degree or postgraduate qualification in food science is in demand by employers. A 2:2 honours degree is usually required for entry to food science or technology courses, although a 2:1 may be needed to be eligible for any research council funding.

Although not essential for entry to food service or management courses, study can be an ideal way to learn about the industry, develop technical skills and also develop relevant experience through project work. Qualifications across the hospitality sector are useful but not essential. When applying for other roles, graduates can benefit from undertaking relevant postgraduate study, particularly if they do not have high grades, relevant work experience or a strong skills profile. Study towards or valid exemption from professional accreditation in non-technical competitive areas such as HR and marketing can also help an application stand out, although graduate schemes are often open to any degree. Qualifications in logistics, manufacturing management and food marketing are popular with employers.

Sources for Further Information

Food Standards Agency
Food and Drink Federation
Scottish Food and Drink Federation