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A comprehensive guide to food apprenticeships: getting a head start in the industry whilst learning on the job

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20 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
Chef in a cooking class teaching her students how to make bread

If you’re looking to kickstart your career in the industry, food apprenticeships are a perfect way to get a hands-on experience of a job in the sector, helping you figure out the ideal role for you.

Whether you’ve dreamt of leading a team of chefs at a top-tier restaurant, want to help people improve their diets, think you could select some top-selling products for a supermarket or fancy trying your hand at being a crop growth manager, there is a wide range of apprenticeships in the food industry.

The benefit of taking on any one of these apprenticeships is that they offer various paths for career progression, with many having additional courses or ‘levels’ to follow to help you develop in your role. For example, if you start as a Food and Drink Process Operator – which is level 2 – you can progress onto a level 3 version of the apprenticeship, if the company you are working for offers one. You can also look for other companies offering Higher Apprenticeships in levels 4, 5 or 6 in similar fields if you think they would benefit your development. Having completed these, a level 7 course ­– the highest apprenticeship level which is equivalent to a Masters’ degree – could also be your next step if it’s available.

If you do want to progress onto a higher level of apprenticeship, you should keep in mind that the equivalent of a level 2 or level 3 in English and Mathematics (or BSL – British Sign Language – qualification as an alternative to English if this is your main language) is essential for many employers in the food sector, so it is worth reading through the entry requirements thoroughly before applying.

Learn more about the different levels of apprenticeships, what they mean, and how long they last here.

Food apprenticeships on offer in the UK include:

Engineering and Manufacturing apprenticeships

While it may seem like most people working in food engineering and manufacturing get into their roles by doing university degrees, there is a great number of apprenticeships on offer to help you get into the sector too.

Some of the starter food production apprenticeship roles on offer, which are good for people with minimal experience and qualifications, include:

  • Level 2 Food and Drink Process Operator: requires you to support food and drink manufacturing operations by working with technical operators to facilitate the set up and shutting down of food and drink production lines and machines.
  • Level 3 Food and Drink Maintenance Engineer: involves maintaining machinery and equipment and looking for and fixing faults to ensure efficient production levels.
  • Level 3 Food and Drink Technical Operator: you’ll work on production operations, setting up and performing maintenance on operational factors of food and drink machinery and tools.
  • Level 4 Brewer: you’ll learn to make beer and operate all the machinery. You may also get to have a say in the design and development of new brands as well as operation of technology and equipment in the brewery.

It is worth keeping in mind that while most apprenticeships at Level 2 or 3 take between 18 to 24 months to complete, in engineering or manufacturing they can sometimes be slightly longer at around 30 months.

How can I progress?

Depending on whether you employer offers it, you may be able to progress into a higher level of food manufacturing apprenticeships automatically once you finish.

Some higher-level apprenticeships in manufacturing and engineering include:

  • Level 5 Food and Drink Engineer: this involves maintaining and installing various equipment and machinery used to produce food and drinks. You typically can apply for this level upon completion of the Level 3 Food and Drink Maintenance Engineer apprenticeship.
  • Level 6 Food and Drink Advanced Engineer: you will be focused on creating effective production systems that are both safe to use and have no negative impact on the environment. You can also apply for this apprenticeship after graduating from the Level 3 Food and Drink Maintenance Engineer apprenticeship. 
  • Level 6 Packaging Professional: this level involves leading the technical packaging delivery projects and programmes for a range of products which could feature food and drink. This role is essential to many industries, so you may not get to work for the food sector straightaway, though already studying a lower level of a food-related engineering role could help you meet the requirements of an employer in the food sector.

You may also be offered a full-time working position related to the field of your apprenticeship once you complete it. This could lead to progression into roles such as Food Processing Engineer, Lead Maintenance Engineer, Head Brewer or Senior Packaging Technologist.

Food Science and Nutrition apprenticeships

Another area of the food and drinks sector which offers an array of apprenticeships is food science and nutrition. Applying for an apprenticeship in this area will help you develop new food and drink products or innovating and improving the recipes of foods already on the market.

One starter level training course in this area includes the food technology apprenticeship:

  • Level 3 Food Technologist: you’ll help to develop new food and drink products, modify, and improve the recipes of foods already on the market, and make sure the processing and packaging procedures meet company environmental and food safety standards.

How can I progress?

After completing a food technologist apprenticeship, you may decide to stay on at that company and enter an entry-level role as a Food Technologist. After this, there are opportunities to move into food inspection, for instance in a local authority environmental health department.

Depending if your company offers it, upon completing the Level 3, you will be qualified to take on a higher-level food technology degree apprenticeship, which could be in a related field such as:

  • Level 6 Food Industry Technical Professional: you’ll learn how to manage the safety of food and drink products. It is worth bearing in mind that you must have three A levels or a decent level of industry experience in science and/or food technology-related subjects to qualify for this apprenticeship.

Other higher-level food science apprenticeships where a food technologist background will help you include:

  • Level 5 Dairy Technologist: it involves delivering expert technical advice and support on various processing and operational activities of dairy production. This could include applying food safety regulations, making sure there is an efficient use of resources to minimise waste, and identify solutions which could solve issues and improve the efficiency of technologies in the processing unit.

A different food science degree apprenticeship on offer is:

  • Level 7 Dietitian: an integrated degree qualification which will prepare you for working with in a real-world dietetic setting. This could be in a hospital or community healthcare practices where you help people diagnose and treat diet-related health problems and help them make better food choices. You could also work for clinical nutrition companies, in higher education, sports, or national and local government positions. As with the food technologist roles, you ideally need three A Levels, including biology or a suitable equivalent, to apply for this apprenticeship. Upon completion of the training, you will be able to apply to the Health and Care Professions Council and register to practice as a professional Dietitian.

Once you become a registered dietitian, there are numerous opportunities for career progression, including becoming a full member of the British Dietetic Association, which offers frequent training to help you develop your area of expertise e.g. diets for patients living with diabetes or a particular type of cancer. If you start working as a dietitian for the NHS you will begin the role at the most junior level – band 5 – moving onto a dietitian specialist role at band 6 and advancing to band 7 with more experience and development in your specialisation. If you decide community-based or hospital-based roles aren’t for you, there’s also the opportunity to transfer into product development and marketing roles, or even teaching, research, or journalism.

Catering and Hospitality apprenticeships

Apprenticeship roles in the catering and hospitality sector could see you working in a range of customer-facing or back-of-house positions. Being in this sector, you’ll need to be confident about working with a team and under intense time pressure. The area is full of opportunities for career progression due to the large variety of apprenticeships on offer.

Some of the starter level apprenticeships in this area include:

  • Level 2 Production Chef: you’ll learn to work with a team under time pressure in a fast-paced kitchen environment. This could be in a school, hospital, care home, for the Armed Forces, a casual dining space or pub.
  • Level 2 Commis Chef: this involves preparing food and knowing how to do simple cooking tasks in all sections of a kitchen, supervised by a senior chef.
  • Level 2 Hospitality Team Member: you’ll be able to take on a range of general and specialist hospitality roles, such as working as a bartender or barista, a concierge, housemaid or housekeeper or waiter in hotel, bar, café, restaurant, or conference centre.
  • Level 2 Baker: you’ll learn how to make breads, pastries, and other sweet or savoury baked goods in a craft or retail bakery.
  • Level 3 Hospitality Supervisor: working in various businesses like restaurants, cafés, hotels, contract caterers, being able to supervise hospitality services independently. There is the opportunity to work in a specialist area, for example as a Food and Beverage Supervisor, which could mean helping with the set up and carry out a range of dining experiences in a hotel or restaurant, such as a wedding.
  • Level 3 Chef de Partie: overseeing your own part of the kitchen such as sauces, grilled foods, soup, or baked items and plated desserts.
  • Level 3 Senior Production Chef: managing a team in a kitchen environment, monitoring the production of food to ensure meets food safety regulation and customer needs, and supporting everyone on the team so that menu items are created to the correct standard.

How can I progress?

To move up in a food-related role in hospitality and catering, you could take on the next level of a related apprenticeship if your employers offer one. These higher-level training roles could include:

  • Level 4 Senior Culinary Chef: where you could oversee helping to create new recipes for restaurants, or new products and product lines for retail.
  • Level 4 Hospitality Manager: otherwise known as a Food and Beverage Manager in the food industry, it involves overseeing delivery of company standards in hotels, contract catering venues, conference centres, restaurants, and cafés.

You may also decide to take on a full-time role in catering and hospitality upon completion of your apprenticeship, which could lead you to roles such as a Sous Chef, Head Chef or Executive Chef, a Bakery Supervisor or a Factory Production Manager. Other possible senior roles in hospitality include Hotel Food and Beverage Manager, Senior Bartender, or Events Operations Manager.

Procurement apprenticeships

In the food industry, apprenticeships in procurement typically refer to working in shops that sell fresh produce like meat or fish, or working with a company to ensure the smooth operation of their supply chain.

Starter-level apprenticeships in this area include:

  • Level 2 Butcher: where you’ll learn about the everyday operations of a butcher’s shop, meat processing factory or butchery department in a supermarket.
  • Level 2 Fishmonger: you’ll sell fish and seafood in a shop and give customers advice on the correct way to prepare the produce.
  • Level 3 Advanced Butcher: a more management-based role than Level 2, working and running a butcher’s shop, supermarket, farm shop, independent retailer, or meat processing plant, develop knowledge on the processing environment and learn advanced meat preparation skills.
  • Level 3 Procurement and Supply Assistant: depending on the company you work for, the role could involve maintaining a supplier database as well as helping to source new suppliers, overseeing the dispatch and delivery of goods by strict deadlines, ensuring all orders are correctly processed and investigating and solving issues with failed deliveries.

How can I progress?

No apprenticeships are currently offered above levels 2, 3 or 4 in procurement-related roles according to the latest information for apprenticeships on Gov.uk. This means the best way to progress after graduating is by taking on full-time employment if you are offered it. If you decide to take the career path of a butcher for example, after completing apprenticeship levels 2 and 3, you could progress into a supervisory or managing role in the shop where you work, at a supermarket, grocery chain, or you could even open your own business if you fancy it. Gaining experience in this area of the industry also gives you the chance to work for the Food Standards Agency, checking produce quality and standards in meat plants and abattoirs, as well as working for catering or meat manufacturing companies as a Meat Packer or Meat Processing Operator. 

You’ll be able to gain similar career progression after completing a Fishmonger apprenticeship, eventually being able to enter a managerial role with experience at an independent shop or supermarket, by owning your own fishmonger business, or through working in fish wholesaling and contract buying.

A Procurement and Supply Assistant apprenticeship will set you up for progression into roles such as a Supply Chain Manager, Logistics Manager, or Purchasing Manager, Distribution Manager or Operations Manager.

Sales and Marketing apprenticeships

Working in sales or marketing, your role is to boost the image of a brand, build and maintain strong relationships with clients in the food and beverage sector, or even manage the products and stock on offer in a shop.

A variety of early career apprenticeship roles are available in this area such as:

  • Level 3 Digital Marketer: you’ll learn the ins and outs of advertising for online brands, developing skills around how to use online and social media to attract customer sales and develop creative, attractive campaigns.
  • Level 3 Marketing Assistant: you’ll work alongside a marketing team to raise awareness of the brand you are working for, as well as customer perception of the business and analyse and present internal marketing data to inform future campaigns and marketing activities.
  • Level 4 Buying and Merchandising Assistant: it involves assisting in decision-making that goes behind what products a retailer decides to bring to market and thinking of ways to build customer focussed displays and product selections that help to boost the business brand identity.
  • Level 4 Retail Manager: you’ll learn how to manage a team of staff and sales in a retail space. Responsibilities could include figuring out the best ways to deliver a positive customer experience, meeting business and financial performance targets, developing new marketing initiatives, demonstrating great leadership skills and monitoring stock management.
  • Level 4 Marketing Executive: you’ll work directly with a Marketing Manager to devise and deliver successful, creative, and communicative marketing plans to engage with a specific target audience.

How can I progress?

Many of these roles have higher level equivalents which you can apply to upon completion of a Level 3 or 4 apprenticeship.

  • Level 6 Digital Marketer: you can progress onto this apprenticeship by taking the Level 3 apprenticeship for this role. In this level you will lead on developing and carrying out digital marketing strategies, finding ways to deliver successful campaigns that help to meet the company targets.
  • Level 6 Marketing Manager: as it’s a managerial role, this apprenticeship involves a lot of responsibility as it is down to you to lead the organisation’s marketing content and develop a strategy that will help a company engage customers and develop its brand identity. Employers typically set official entry requirements for this apprenticeship but applying after completing the Level 3 Marketing Assistant and/or Level 4 Marketing Executive will give you a strong marketing background to apply with.
  • Level 6 Assistant Buyer and Assistant Merchandiser: this role requires you to take on a leading role with regards to the sourcing and delivering of products for a retailer.
  • Level 6 B2B Sales Professional: in a nutshell, you’ll be selling products to other businesses as opposed to directly to consumers. You’ll be responsible for developing good working relationships with the companies you are looking to sell to and really understand businesses’ needs and how your brand’s product could benefit buyers. You will also need to manage a team of salespeople, meaning being a good team leader, communicator, and listener is essential.
  • Level 6 Retail Leadership: through this apprenticeship, you will learn how to act as a brand ambassador and manage a team to meet the company’s sales and profit targets and ensure excellent customer service. While employers set the entry requirements for this level, applying for this level after completion of the Level 4 Retail Manager apprenticeship will give you a good level of experience to apply with.

Again, it’s important to check with your employer as to whether they can support you through a higher-level training course like an apprenticeship. They may also offer you a full-time role where you’ll be able to progress to a similar level without any need to complete an extra qualification.

Following these apprenticeships, with plenty of years’ experience under your belt, you could see yourself progressing into a Regional Manager role, requiring you to be responsible for a group of stores and for the management of large teams of staff in a region. Working in retail could also give you opportunities to apply for different types of roles, including marketing, buying, and human resources.  

Progression from a marketing apprenticeship could see you entering the role of a Social Media Manager, Product Manager, Market Researcher or Public Relations Officer in the food industry. With plenty more years of experience you could follow the path of a Chief Marketing Officer or Director of Marketing for a range of big multinational food and drink brands to smaller SMEs.

Moving up the sales career ladder could see you entering the role of a Regional, National or International Sales Manager, depending on the size of the company you end up working for.

Finally, if a Buyer seems like the dream career for you, with more experience you could work your way up to the role of a Junior and then Senior Buyer, eventually reaching Head of Buying, Buying Controller or even the Managing Director of a company with time.

Agriculture apprenticeships

Another sector with a wide and varied array of food apprenticeships is agriculture. The roles on offer in this area enable you to learn what it’s like to work on a farm, to source fish and seafood, or find out what it takes to boost crop and plant yields in fields.

Some of these starter agricultural and food production apprenticeship roles include:

  • Level 2 Poultry Worker: you’ll learn how to farm birds like chickens for their eggs or meat.
  • Level 2 Fisher: you’ll develop an understanding about how to harvest fish and shellfish, learning about different fishing methods such as basic static gears or more modern trawling equipment
  • Level 2 General Farm Worker: you’ll develop an understanding of the daily operations on a farm. These could range from rearing livestock and knowing how to deal with pests and diseases that appear regularly on the farm to selling produce to food retail stores like supermarkets and local food suppliers and finding ways to implement more sustainable farming methods and preserve biodiversity.
  • Level 2 Land-Based Service Engineer: this role allows you to work with a range of machinery and equipment for use in agriculture, forestry and horticulture.
  • Level 3 Crop Technician (Viticulture): this apprenticeship will teach you how figure out ways to ensure high crop and plant yields. You will learn how to work with soil-based systems to grow a variety of fruit, vegetable and cereal crops. You might also get to work with and manage container-based systems (also known as aeroponics.) It is also possible to study a version of this training course with a focus on viticulture (wine growing), where you will still learn about monitoring and controlling pests and disease, but also manage the growth and characteristics of wine grapes, learn about vine pruning, vineyard nutrition and how to use special machinery and equipment.
  • Level 3 Poultry Technician: you’ll raise poultry, learning how to ensure optimal welfare conditions and to take care of their needs at different points in their life.
  • Level 3 Packhouse Line Leader: involves the collection and processing of fresh products and dispatch them to the retailer or to other sites for more processing. A quick-paced role where you’ll be responsible for a range of perishable foods like vegetables and fruit. You’ll also have to learn to work well with a team, and learn new machinery and IT systems to help you distribute produce to where it needs to be on time.
  • Level 3 Land-based Service Engineering Technician: you’ll develop the ability to provide advanced technical support in agriculture and horticulture sectors, knowing how to prepare, install and handover high-tech advanced machinery and equipment, as well as fix any faults with the technology and conduct regular inspections to ensure it all works efficiently. While no A Level qualifications are needed for this training course, 4 GCSEs at grade C, or equivalent, in English, mathematics and a science subject are needed. It is also recommended that you apply with a decent understanding of ICT.  

How can I progress?

While there are a variety of apprenticeship roles on offer in this sector, higher level apprenticeships involved with the food industry are less common in this area for the moment. One currently available is:

  • Level 6 Agriculture or Horticulture Professional Adviser: you’ll be required to consult and deliver technical advice to farmers and growers to help them manage their crops. You’ll learn to use the latest scientific research and knowledge on the subject to deliver solutions as well as have an understanding of environmental requirements that are in line with current legislation and policy in the UK.

Being such an enormous sector with great importance to the UK economy, opportunities to grow in agriculture are anything but few and far between. Gaining experience as a Farm Worker for example could help you become a Farm Supervisor, Manager of a specific unit (such as poultry or arable crops). With more experience, you might be able to manage your own farm.

Progression from a Land-Based Service Engineer Technician role could also lead to working in a successful engineering career in the agriculture or food manufacturing sector, such as an Engineering Maintenance Technician or Vehicle Breakdown Engineer. With more experience you could specialise in working with specific equipment or machinery or take on a managerial role at the company you work for. 

Taking on the viticulture-focused Crop Technician apprenticeship could also lead to a role as a Vineyard Assistant, which could progress to being a Vineyard Manager with experience, or even a slightly different role in wine and viticultural consultancy.

Digital data apprenticeships

Digital data roles are becoming more essential to the efficient operation of the food and drink industry. From supporting agri-tech companies, to supplying food delivery services with customer data, there is a high demand for digital roles in food.

If you reckon you might enjoy working with data to benefit the food industry, it may be worth applying to the following starter apprenticeship:

  • Level 3 Data Technician: you’ll compile, format and present data for use in retail, manufacturing, and hospitality sectors of the food industry.
  • Level 4 Data Analyst (this could be a natural progression from the Level 3 apprenticeship): it will require you to research and analyse data which companies may use to make important business decisions. This could be in a food retail, manufacturing, or marketing business for instance.

How can I progress?

Higher level apprenticeships in this area are also available. Prerequisites for these sometimes, but don’t always, require prior completion of an academic qualification such as a BSc in a related field such as Data Science. Some companies may accept you to an integrated degree level of an apprenticeship in this area upon completion of Level 3 or Level 4 training in a data-related position.

Some higher-level apprenticeships include:

  • Level 6 Data Scientist: this apprenticeship involves working with a team to analyse diverse dataset, tackle complex problems and improve various processes within the organisation to achieve various business-related goals. They can find and address data biases as well as deal with private data in an ethical manner for the company.

Data Analysts and Technicians play essential roles in the food industry, meaning you could progress in this career by taking on this role in a different company. Progression in this career could entail taking up a managerial position as a Senior Data Analyst or Analytics Manager, where you’ll lead the data collection process for your employer, and you may get your own team of other analysts to manage too.

No matter what area of the sector you’re intrigued by, there is a wide scope of food industry apprenticeships on offer to help you get onto your dream career path.

Find out more about future careers in the food industry by visiting Food Matters Live’s Preparing for a career in food.

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