The food business offers one of the most exciting areas for a fast-track career in Britain today. For young people wanting a career path that genuinely rewards talent and initiative, and offers high salaries and travel, the food manufacturing and retail sectors really do deliver. The trade has all the adrenaline, challenge and pace of an industry which is absolutely essential. Food retailing is a £96bn business, and the very lifeblood of the nation Think how the government's real panic over the September fuel crisis came when supermarket shelves started emptying, and you begin to get a feel for how vital this whole supply chain really is. The fact we rarely even have to think about where our next Pot Noodle's coming from just shows what a well oiled operation it is under normal circumstances. OK, so it may be important. But does that make it interesting? For many new graduates the dotcom economy is the ultimate career path. One of the crucial areas for the future will be e-commerce and internet shopping. You may be looking at the screen rather than the shelf, but success will depend on training and experience in conventional marketing and retail just as much as it will on web-based skills. If you have both, better still. The crossover between bricks and mortar retail and e-business is just one of many opportunity hotspots in the grocery chain. Some will require specialist qualifications, but for a great many it is strength of character and personal attributes that count for much more. Of course, there is no retailing without manufacture, and the food and drink industry alone offers a vast range of openings. If you have a food or general science background, research and product development could be for you. Food manufacturers loom large not only in UK plc, but also increasingly stretch across frontiers. The way that larger brands are busy finding direct routes to the consumer is also opening up new opportunities. Sarah Dawson, quality assurance manager at Elkes Biscuits, has been working with the Institute of Food Science and Technology to improve careers materials on the industry. As part of the large Northern Foods group, Elkes benefits from a graduate scheme which provides a wide ranging introduction to the food industry. Here, says Dawson, graduates can expect to see a starting salary of between £18,000 and £22,000 The number of different businesses within groups of this type means a huge amount of experience can be accumulated within the first few years of leaving higher or further education. The company itself will be keen to ensure you build up as broad a picture as possible of the industry. Armed with a food or general science qualification, you will be able to pick and choose between the different schemes available, and so make sure that you get the best grounding in the areas that most interest you. "There is a shortage of technical and development people, so a lot of chopping and changing ­ as well as headhunting ­ goes on," Dawson explains. If you also have IT skills, you are likely to be in even greater demand. But manufacturing is keen to recruit college leavers from all backgrounds, not only scientific. Graduate schemes often encompass areas as diverse as personnel, purchasing and marketing. In fact, the grocery business is the ideal place to kick off a career in sales and marketing. Here, you will be dealing with household names and an ever changing range of products and brands, often supported by a substantial marketing budget. It is no coincidence that other sectors are increasingly looking to these fast moving' goods for marketing inspiration ­ and skills. What we, the shopper, see of retailing is only the tip of a mighty iceberg. In fact, it spans a mass of different disciplines from buying, marketing and distribution through to personnel and store management. While retail degrees are valuable, the bigger chains are just as eager to entice graduates with non specialist qualifications, but with the all-important attributes of intelligence, initiative and drive. In fact, just 14% of graduates taken on by British retailing last year had a retail degree. Undergraduates ask themselves a series of questions about retailing, says Martin Hall, executive director of the British Institute of Retailing. "They ask, Is this an industry which will value my intelligence? Will it give me real responsibility? And is it going to reward me for what I put into it?' More often than not, they believe that the answer to all three questions will be No'." Given the poor information usually available to students, Hall says he can see why this view should take root. "But the industry is moving so fast that people who say No' to these questions are wrong, wrong, wrong!" he argues. It is true, says Hall, that success will depend on talent, hard work and an ability to learn. But the rewards will certainly be there, and the opportunities will often be unpredictable in the best sense of the word. The expansion of retailers overseas and the opening up of new consumer channels are just two exciting developments. "Retail is in a period of fast change," says Hall. "Savvy store bosses are finding the brightest, and often the youngest, and promoting them bloody fast. The really successful chains have a real hunger for intelligence. Nowadays, if you have a bright idea, there are avenues for those ideas to be put into practice ­ and for you to be given responsibility for them." Each retailer has its own approach to graduate recruitment, but for smaller chains, you could find yourself managing a branch, earning up to £24,000, plus car, not so long after signing on the dotted line. For other retailers, the route may take graduates to assistant store manager, on between £17,000 and £20,000. Promotion up the management ladder could take you to £40,000 by your late 20s. Working for one of the big names in UK retailing will not necessarily mean you stay in the UK. Chains such as Tesco have massive programmes of overseas expansion ­ the efficiency they have learned fighting the home-grown competition having given them a head start overseas. So get rid once and for all of those clichéd images of filling shelves for a pittance, of a parochial Open All Hours existence. Grocery today is international, hi-tech, and dynamic, and touches everybody wherever they are. Do you really want to miss the buzz? {{Z SUPPLEMENTS }}