One in four food scientist vacancies in Scotland remain unfilled, according to research commissioned by food and drink sector skills council Improve.

Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve says: "The latest research makes it clear that very few young people are choosing food science and technology courses straight from school. This means that, when it comes to filling food scientist vacancies, there is a shortage of freshly qualified graduates who are looking for jobs.

"Technological advancements and increased demand for new product innovation mean the number of food scientist and technologist roles is set to rise. Unless we get more young people choosing to work in these careers, by 2014 there will be a shortfall of 13,000 such roles."

With this in mind, bakery ingredients manufacturer Macphie of Glenbervie teamed up with Mearns Academy in Aberdeenshire to encourage pupils to think about a career in food science. In February, over 120 third-year pupils were asked to form their own companies and launch a healthy eating muffin. They were given a week to develop the product, manufacture it, create eye-catching packaging, an advertisement and a radio jingle.

The pupils formed six ’companies’ with just over 20 in each group. Each group then split into teams with four or five pupils to handle each sector of marketing, production planning, packaging and manufacturing. Each ’company’ also elected a chief executive from its peers.

On February 15, the challenge event took place over the course of one day. All the results were presented at a trade fair and judged by a panel, chaired by Macphie chief executive Alastair Macphie. Muffin ideas included Chocoberry, Branburry Burst and Bloo nanahs, but the winner was a muffin called Zap Dat Fat from a ’company’ called Z1. The muffin contained apples, cinnamon and sultanas. The winners received certificates and HMV vouchers.

This latest challenge is part of an ongoing partnership between Macphie and the Mearns Academy, called ’Determined to Succeed’, originally introduced in 2005. Macphie human resources director, Sylvia Halkerston, is convinced of the benefits of the school’s challenge. She says: "There are deep concerns in the food industry that the UK is not producing enough food scientists to maintain its worldwide reputation to drive innovation. While the next generation of job seekers is reluctant to consider the food industry as a career option, numerous universities are dropping sciences, engineering and food technology courses."

How do you ensure your future workforce has the skills your business needs? "It’s simple. You catch them young. For many years we have recognised that, as employers, we have to work in partnership with those who are educating our young people.

"Many youngsters do not see beyond the white hats and coats of the food industry." The challenge makes direct links to the curriculum, so that pupils can see where subjects taught can be applied to a real job. "It gives us an opportunity to engage with young people and reposition food science as a gateway to some fantastic career opportunities. We are committed to maintaining our links with education and we believe it is the way forward."

Halkerston added that the latest challenge has been televised for both a BBC Scotland programme and Scottish Television news, putting the food ingredients company in the spotlight and raising awareness of the issue. "We evaluate the challenges and this gives us fresh ideas and feedback on pupils’ career expectations and aspirations as well as research into products," she says.

Mearns Academy Rector Gordon Miller says: "Pupils always respond differently to both the commercial setting and the involvement of the Macphie staff. The experience is hugely significant for our students, as well as being highly motivational. The need for cleanliness in the factory, teamwork and common objectives, learning about the range of activities involved in product development, and relating the curriculum to real life settings are all important aspects which cannot be recreated in a school setting." n