Food Industry Executive spoke with members of the Food Processing Suppliers Association’s (FPSA) Young Professionals Group about the challenges and opportunities they see in the food industry today and in the future. This interview is with Camilla Howard, marketing manager for Unitherm Food Systems, a company that specializes in thermal processing solutions for the food industry.
How did you get into the food industry?
I’ve always had a love for food and for cooking, so it was a natural progression when i chose a degree in hospitality administration with a focus on food and beverage in the restaurant and catering sector.
It’s also in the family. Even though I grew up close to the industry I certainly never considered food manufacturing and processing as part of my future. But after a few years in hospitality industry, I decided to make the switch because this career path has more stability and more growth opportunities.
What do you like about the food industry?
I’m a foodie, so I love that my work allows me to spend time discussing, tasting, and researching food from various aspects. I’m also fortunate that Unitherm doesn’t just specialize in one sector, but works across many sectors, so I don’t get burned out by one product.
I like that it’s part of everyday life. Most people eat something that has been precooked every day. But, it’s often overlooked. People don’t give much thought to where their food was cooked, or who cooked it, or how it was cooked beyond knowing it was conveniently done for them.
It’s also a very stable industry. The need for food will always be there and I like the opportunity to influence what products are taken to the market.
How would you like to see the food industry change?
I would like to see the food industry take health into consideration more often. Processed food gets a bad rap, and probably for good reason because of the past, but things are changing. People are starting to educate themselves about what’s in their food. They want to know if there are preservatives, chemicals, or food dyes added. People want to eat good food, and they want to eat well.
The onus lands on us because it is a stable industry, and food is a demand. We shouldn’t be abusing that. We should be providing food that is healthy for consumers, not just for our bottom lines.
What are your biggest challenges as a young professional in the food industry?
When I first joined, I noticed that the industry is very male-dominant. I also quickly discovered that most had been in the industry for a long time.
These established professionals carry a lot of clout and have established relationships. They know everything there is to know, and not only about their own product line. It’s hard to enter the industry as someone new. You’re constantly questioned.
There’s also some resistance to new ideas because things have been done in the same way for so long. As young professionals, we can take what we’ve learned in previous industries or in school and introduce new things. But sometimes that’s difficult. It’s about building credibility and experience so that one day you’ll be seen as equal.
How do you overcome these challenges?
I focus on educating myself. People don’t always ask questions they think I won’t have the answer to. So sometimes I just give answers without being prompted or share something new and exciting that they might not know.
I’m speaking mostly about what I do when I’m at trade shows or during client trials because that’s where I interact one-on-one with customers the most. I try to take the lead in the conversation and open with something interesting, and then ask them about how they do things and really listen to what they have to say. This balance of listening and sharing is what’s helped the most.
How can the industry reach out to younger people?
The food industry offers a good career path that isn’t presented at school. We need to focus on reaching students earlier.
We’ve hired a lot of young professionals since I started. Right now, about 20% of our company would qualify as a young professional, and some of them are our most successful team players.
We’ve had the most success recruiting at the college level or after one to two years of work experience. We recruit through networks, reaching out to colleges that have food programs and also to people with a sales or engineering background. We aren’t daunted by the fact that they don’t have all of the experience. It can be a plus in some cases — they’ll find their own way of doing things within a company like ours.
How can the food industry cater to Millennials’ different ideas about work?
People are looking for a career that’s also fun. We’re going up against start-ups or tech companies like Google and Trivago that have all these innovative ways of working and fun activities they do with their teams. How do you counterbalance that?
One of the things that appealed to me most was travel. Millennials love to travel, and the food industry is global, so there are a lot of opportunities. That’s definitely a selling point. Also, being flexible about working locations.
Goal setting and showing them a potential career path is also important. Millennials tend to be goal oriented and reward focused. When I looked at what I could do as a food and beverage manager vs. what I could do in the food and beverage industry, I realized that my career on the industry side would move twice as fast. I think if you look at the bigger picture and what’s important, at the end of the day, career goals outweigh hip trends.
Do you have any advice for a younger person looking to enter the food industry?
Do it! Find a company with a product line you can get excited about, and then identify someone who can be your mentor. There are a lot of experienced people in the industry for you to learn from. And they’ll enjoy telling their stories. Listen and learn from their experiences, from the mistakes they made, and from their ideas, and then see what you can bring to the table. Fresh eyes always offer a new perspective, obverse and digest first, then use that. Understand that you were hired to challenge the existing status quo, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do that when the time is right.
Do you have any advice for companies who want to bring Millennials into the industry?
Hire them fresh out of college and teach them. Everyone appreciates the company that gave them their first job, and there’s a lot to be said for that.
The benefits go both ways. You’re going to invest time, money, and training into someone who’s hungry to learn, looking to build a career, and wants to be advised. If you put in that time when they’re younger, in return you’ll get someone who wants to grow with the company long-term. Be supportive of the fresh perspectives they bring and challenge them to question how things are being done. That’s where you’ll find a competitive advantage with a Millennial hire.
Also, hiring younger talent shouldn’t be just a one-off. The more young professionals in the environment, the better, because we feed off of that younger energy. We recognize that we spend more time with our colleagues than our peers, so it’s important that team members get along.
Work is work, but it should be an enjoyable environment. It’s good for morale. Plus, having teams that all get along and can interact and work independently but support each other when needed is huge for Millennials — and for the companies that hire them.
What broader trends will affect the industry in the next 5 to 10 years?
Consumer health will be a big one. There will be an opportunity for the food industry to step up and provide food that is both delicious and healthy.
Beyond that, we’ll also be looking at how we can minimize waste in the industry. Maybe that means getting inventive with our packaging, or reassessing how portion sizes are packaged together, so there’s minimal waste. As the population continues to grow and food shortages becomes very real, we’re going to have to look at our waste as individuals, as countries, and as industries.
The FPSA Young Professionals Group is open to all FPSA members 35 years and younger. If you’d like to see what it’s all about, join the Slack channel.