Name: Emma Nicholson
Job title: Conformance Manager
Company: Nestlé (Fawdon, Newcastle)
Education: BSc Nutrition & Food Science, University of Surrey
Why did you decide to go for a career in food & drink?
‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to make a career out of this thing that we all not only need to survive, but love to eat and experiment with?!’
I can’t ever remember a time when food hasn’t been a focal point in my life. The love stemmed from baking cakes with my family as a kid, progressed through to helping my mum out making Sunday lunch, to getting a bit more adventurous and doing some cooking on my own. I remember thinking as the time came to picking A level subjects: ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to make a career out of this thing that we all not only need to survive, but love to eat and experiment with?!’.
From there I did a bit of research, and found a Food Science Summer School running at the University of Nottingham, where I was introduced to a range of complex and wondrous sciences that all link together. Who knew there were so many components that contribute to taste and smell, or how we can have such an emotional connection to food? At that point, I was sold!
Explain your job to us in a sentence (or two).
I joined Nestlé as a Quality Assurance Graduate and now work as a Conformance Manager. I work closely with a multi-functional team in the factory to make sure our products are safe for everyone to eat all of the time. Not only that, but also making sure the consumer gets the same great looking, smelling and tasting product they expect every time.
What does a typical day look like for you?
As much as it sounds cliché, there is no ‘typical day’ working in quality assurance. My day starts with reviewing the previous day, to make sure I’m learning from whatever happened yesterday. Continuous improvement is essential in any business and Nestlé factories are no different: I work with a number of different teams in the factory on problem solving to make sure we’re always learning and evolving as a team. I check what product we’ve been making on each of the lines in the factory, and whether there have been any issues that might affect product quality. Naturally, a very important part of that is sensory.
As a factory, we taste and assess a sample of every one of the products produced the previous day, looking for anything that deviates from the perfect product. It completely warps the seasons, tasting Easter eggs in November and Christmas chocolates in March! But it’s essential. People expect consistent quality in their products, and especially in confectionery where there’s a lot of seasonality in the production. The last thing you want to do is upset a family at Christmas or Easter!
Tell us a bit about how you applied for your job. What was the process?
The application process for the Nestlé graduate scheme was pretty intense. There was an initial application and questionnaire to be submitted along with online verbal and numerical reasoning tests (which are nobody’s favourite!), followed by a video interview, which is always a bit of an awkward experience. Then I was invited to an assessment centre, where there was an interview, a pre-prepared presentation on current and future challenges facing the food industry and a couple of group exercises designed to see what kind of role you naturally take in a team and how you approach different situations. After that, there was a final interview with the technical director – a daunting experience but also refreshing to know senior people in the business are invested in bringing young talent into the industry.
What’s the best part about working for a food company?
I eat for a living! I walk into work and am greeted by the smell of melting chocolate, or just-baked wafer, or fresh, minty After Eights. It’s pretty difficult not to be enthusiastic about that. It’s also taught me just how much care, attention and effort goes into some of the foods I might previously have thought were so simple when I picked them up from the shops.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about working in food & drink?
Whenever I used to tell people what I did at uni, the most common response was something along the lines of ‘oh so you colour in pictures of vegetables, right?’ or something equally misguided. Certainly in the UK there are a lot of people who take the ready availability of food and drink for granted. People don’t realise just how much science and expertise goes into getting food and drink onto supermarket shelves, and meeting the ever-increasing demands of the consumer!
Within any food & drink business or organisation, there so many different paths and routes that you can take. Don’t rule anything out!
What advice would you give to other young people looking to get into the food & drink industry?
I’d say be open to any opportunities in the food and drink industry. Within any food & drink business or organisation, there so many different paths and routes that you can take. Don’t rule anything out! I spent the first year of my graduate programme working in a coffee factory, which I was dreading because I can’t stand coffee. But it was a fantastic experience and looking back I definitely wouldn’t change it.
What’s your ultimate career dream?
I love to travel and have a big interest in where my food is coming from, so my ultimate job would be working with ingredient and raw material suppliers at their origins… Hopefully in lots of interesting and exotic destinations!