A misconception about working in food technology is that we work in labs! I don't. There’s quite a lot of travelling within the UK.
Vanessa studied food safety, quality and nutrition at Queen’s University Belfast. She joined the Marks and Spencer food technologist graduate scheme in 2010 and has stayed with the company since; when we spoke to her, she was a food technologist working specifically with protein.
In this article, Vanessa tells us about her experience of applying for a food technology graduate scheme and gives us her advice for current students who want to follow in her footsteps. While you may find your experience to be a bit different as a result of Covid-19 (for instance, you may carry out a virtual assessment centre), you should still try to demonstrate the skills, experience and understanding that Vanessa suggests will impress recruiters.
What was the recruitment process like for your Marks and Spencer food technology job?
Vanessa says: ‘My application started online and I had to complete some verbal and numerical reasoning tests. Once I’d done that successfully I had a phone interview and when I passed that they invited me to an assessment centre. The assessment centre was a full day – I started at 9.00 am and was there until about 4.00 pm. I was tested in a number of different ways: I took part in group exercises, I had several interviews and I had to do a short presentation as well. The assessment centre was the last stage so after that I found out if I’d got the job or not.'
- Discover more about M&S and get advice on its selection process from application form through to assessment centre
Vanessa says: ‘Do your research. Make sure you’re aware of current issues or problems that the industry may be facing. It’s common for recruiters to use psychometric tests as part of the application process so make sure you’ve had a go at them; you can do practice ones online or through your careers centre at university. Remember psychometric tests are supposed to be challenging and it’s likely that you won’t finish the whole test, but the recruiters expect that. If you give yourself the chance to have a couple of practice runs first you’ll do much better.
‘It’s a really good idea to build links with your careers advisers while you’re at university; they can keep you up to date with application deadlines and let you know about any recruiters’ events. I also went to my careers adviser for mock interviews and practice psychometric tests.
‘Make sure you apply for a few different graduate schemes that you like the look of. That doesn’t mean you should apply for every graduate scheme available; I’d recommend making a shortlist of the companies and schemes that interest you most. If I was to go back and do anything differently, I’d have gone after other roles more actively, because I only applied to the Marks and Spencer scheme, so if I’d have been unsuccessful there I would have been very late applying for other roles!’
How can a work placement help you with food technology graduate job applications?
Vanessa says: ‘On my course, and this is quite typical, there was an option to do a placement year. I found it really beneficial because I gained some practical experience and it helped me a lot when filling in applications and answering interview questions.
‘Often to get on a placement you have to go through a similar recruitment process to the one for a graduate scheme so it’s good practice. It’s also handy to be able to use real life examples from the food industry when it comes to answering questions in interviews.
‘Doing a placement, either at a manufacturing site or with a retailer, will also give you exposure to all the different types of jobs that there are within both the technical side and the industry as a whole so it should help you to have a better idea of what you want to do as a career.’
What should students do if they miss out on a food technology graduate scheme?
Vanessa says: ‘If you do miss out on a graduate scheme, try to spend the year working in the industry. Think about doing some factory-based work; working as a quality assessor or as a food production operative. These roles don’t have the same time constraints as graduate schemes so you can apply throughout the year and it will mean that your year out isn’t wasted because you’ll gain so much experience and inside knowledge. When graduate schemes do open again you’ll be in a much better position than a lot of applicants.
‘It’s important to be determined and not feel too downhearted if you don’t get on to the first graduate scheme you apply for. Stick at it.’
Vanessa says: ‘Remember that applications for the bigger employers start quite early in the academic year. I came back to university after my placement year in September to find applications closing in October or November. So, you really do need to start that process quickly after coming back from placement.
‘It’s also important to know that relocation is quite common for graduate schemes. I relocated to London for mine and most people going into the industry, unless they live near a site, will have to relocate.’
Vanessa says: ’Yes. My degree was pretty specific – it was geared towards food-related jobs. There is an alternative route, which is to start off at a factory level and work your way up but you’ll probably need to do a degree at some point or a relevant qualification as part of that.’
What is the work like as a graduate in food technology?
Vanessa says: ‘I think a big misconception about working in food technology is that we work in labs! I don’t. There’s actually quite a lot of travelling within the UK, which can be a challenge but I really love it. I typically spend about half the week in the office and the other on various sites: in factories and working with suppliers.
‘It was also a surprise to discover how far ahead you’re working on products – we’re almost a year ahead in most cases. It’s summer now and we’re working on next summer’s products and soon we’ll be starting on products for next Christmas.
‘You’re given quite a lot of responsibility early on. You’ll be given one or two products to take charge of developing and then over time you’ll be given more. Now I look after several large suppliers and the products that they supply. The more you put in the more you get back: if you work hard you will be given more responsibility.
‘Changing departments is quite typical, unless you’re a specialist. I started out in confectionery and worked there for two and a half years and then I took the opportunity to move into protein.’
What should students be doing now to get a graduate job in food technology?
Vanessa says: ‘University should provide you with a good basis of technical skills; at times you may sit in lectures and think, “I will never need to use this” but you will! Everything you’re taught in university will come in handy so make sure you take lots of notes.
‘You can use your time at university to work on your communication skills. Seek out the chance to take part in or give a presentation because those are the sorts of skills employers like to see, and you’ll really boost your confidence. Communication is a really valuable skill to have and it’s so important when you’re working in a big company as you will have to liaise with colleagues from lots of different departments.’