When you say “engineer” in the food industry, what’s your first thought? If you said machine designer or CAD expert, you’d be right. If you said a project manager that loves his/her process and tools, you’d also be right. Heck, if you said anything associated with the typical picture of an engineer in your head (you know, tie with a short sleeved button down, maybe a pocket protector) you’d be right. But, if you said product developer, packaging scientist, sensory expert, focus group facilitator, product labeler, market researcher, people manager, or business leader, you’d also be right!
Find Success in Food!
My name is Jason Robinson – I was with a Fortune 500 BIG FOOD company for 19 years in a variety of R&D roles and technologies with steadily increasing responsibility. And yes, I am a proud chemical engineer! But, after spending all this time in a CPG with a strong focus on delivering FOOD PEOPLE LOVE, I’d like to think that I have developed a skill set that is so much broader. That’s the beauty of an engineering degree – employers in the food industry know that if you can get through such a difficult program, the fundamental skills you need to be successful are there: communication, organization, problem solving. Passion, self-motivation, internal training programs, and on-the-job experience can give you the additional skills you need to be successful in the food industry.
Engineering and Ice-Cream
But like I said earlier – there is so much more for you in food than traditional engineering roles. It’s really about defining your strengths and marrying those to your passions…and being open to lifelong learning. For example, I spent time developing and rolling out an innovation framework for Häagen-Dazs Shops, meant to unify franchisees across the network in Europe and Asia – a pretty straightforward approach for experienced business leaders. (Side note: for those who don’t know, Häagen-Dazs is a super-premium ice cream brand sold around the world, with a brand identity that is on par with other luxury brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Louis Vuitton – particularly outside of the US).
To do it effectively, though, I needed to understand not only cultural differences and norms, but also how to elevate the experience to the Häagen-Dazs brand standard with the limited resources available in a 200 square foot scoop shop. So what did this mean? It meant breaking outside of a standard scientific method approach and building empathy for both the consumer AND the shop owner – in this case, conversation with experts in the Häagen-Dazs experience, and building tools and skills that fit operational limitations and the brand identity. (As an example, I spent an entire day learning the intricacies of food styling – and then applied that new learning to my initiative). The result was a new ice cream cake experience that could be constructed at any shop, the first time a new item had been rolled out across the entire 2-continent network at the same time!
So MANY Career Options….
So, to put it bluntly, that degree in engineering you just earned doesn’t relegate you to “just” roles with engineer in the title. Yes, you will likely have to spend some time in a traditional engineering role to learn what working in the food industry is all about – but if you have a passion for creating food that people will love, follow that passion into the food industry. And leave the pocket protector at home (unless you REALLY like it)!
Author: Jason Robinson
Jason is a chemical engineer who was pleasantly surprised there was a place for him in food. He spent 19 years at a Fortune 500 BIG FOOD manufacturer, in roles of increasing responsibility spanning product, process, and packaging R&D. Today, Jason lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota with his wife of 15 years (also in the food industry as a Sensory Science Business Manager) and 2 energetic boys, at 12 and 9 years old.