With the economy strengthening steadily and the food industry making strides in developing new technologies, graduates of food science programs nationwide should find their future ripe with employment possibilities. "The food industry is the largest industry in the U.S.," notes Dr. Philip Nelson, head and professor, department of food science at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Our students find opportunities with food companies, food processing companies, suppliers of ingredients and equipment suppliers. In short, there are many, many opportunities out there."
HIGH PLACEMENT POTENTIAL
Trained in the areas of science, chemistry, microbiology and engineering, Purdue's food science graduates have experienced 100 percent placement in the last 10 years, according to Nelson. "There has always been a high demand for our students and that's true today," he says.
The same is true in Clemson, S.C., where graduates of Clemson University's department of food science are experiencing a strong hiring season, according to Dr. Beth Kunkel, professor and chair of the department. "We have far more inquiries from employers than we have graduates," says Kunkel, adding that the present employment outlook is even a bit better than usual.
"It's the strong economy, as much as anything else, that's creating such a positive environment," Kunkel says. "Of course, the food business isn't as affected as some others by economic slowdowns. No matter what, people still eat."
LARGE FOOD COMPANIES CONCERNED ABOUT FOOD SAFETY
Add to that a growing emphasis on food safety and it's no wonder large food companies nationwide are clamoring to hire university grads fresh off of campus. "We have one student graduating in May who is going to develop an entire food safety program for a small supermarket chain in the Atlanta area," Kunkel reports. "That's the first time we've seen that kind of opportunity."
Dr. Lynn Turner, professor, food science department, and undergraduate teaching coordinator at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., adds to the positive picture by noting that several companies, including big names such as Pillsbury, General Mills and Nabisco, have been recruiting on campus.
"There's a wide range of companies looking to hire students from our department," he says. "In addition to the major food companies that are really driving employment, there are some regionally based companies involved in meat and poultry processing, dairy processing companies and fruit and vegetable processing companies looking to hire as well."
Food safety is one area that's opening up job opportunities for new grads. Other trends are contributing as well. The public's demand for minimally processed foods has created a challenge for food companies. So, too, has the growing consumption of convenience foods by a population perpetually on the go.
"Minimally processed foods need to be packaged in a modified atmosphere," says Kunkel of Clemson University. "That's new for us. Irradiation is another emerging technology we're teaching more and more."
INDUSTRY REACTS TO CONSUMER DEMANDS
Turner of North Carolina State points not only to convenience but also to health-consciousness as a factor largely affecting the food industry today. "Food companies are always in a position of trying to anticipate what the consumer will want next while providing what's currently in demand," he says. "Right now, there's a demand for reduced-fat products, as well as for convenience items that can be microwaved or require very little preparation.
"As food companies respond by expanding in those areas," he continues, "they're going to be looking for individuals to be involved either in quality assurance or in some cases (mostly with smaller companies) product development."
Perhaps improvements in biotechnology will forge the most cutting-edge opportunities for graduates in the future, though they may have to be patient. Nelson of Purdue characterizes genetic engineering and even irradiation as technologies "still looming in the foreground."
A trend he does see affecting employment right now is that of ingredients suppliers playing a larger role in product development. "As more and more of the development of new products is pushed back to these suppliers," he says, "they're going to need more technically trained people than they have in the past."
Smaller companies responding to the demands of stricter food regulations and the need to stay technically competitive have also entered the hiring arena in greater numbers this season, according to Nelson.
FOOD SCIENCE PROGRAMS STILL STRUGGLE TO ATTRACT STUDENTS
For many food science programs at American universities, the challenge is not placing graduates in the marketplace, but rather in attracting them to study food science in the first place. The public, which scarcely knows what any engineering discipline entails, seems particularly in the dark about what a food scientist does.
"Students in high school are certainly unaware of what food science is," contends Nelson of Purdue. "They think it has something to do with cooking or working in the fast food area." The university's food science department has responded by developing a recruitment program much like that of a football team.
"We recruit students, we follow them through the application process, we get their parents to campus, we provide scholarships, we give out an 800 number... anything to entice students to the field," Nelson explains. And the royal treatment doesn't end there. Once students are on campus, they are provided free tutors and are required to visit an academic counselor on a regular basis during their first semester in order to "get a firm footing," Nelson says.
Like most of their engineering counterparts, students enrolled in food science programs are likely finding that their education includes much more than lectures and reading assignments. The call by employers for effective communicators and team players is changing the face of many technically based curricula.
"Higher education really is changing in response to what industry wants," reports Kunkel of Clemson. "Our classes must involve more problem solving and teamwork. We're creating an active, rather than passive, learning mode."