Soft skills for successful food

Posted: 30 January 2013 | The SAFE Consortium | No comments yet

Some employees are remarkable, they have exactly the skills, competencies and knowledge that an institution needs…

Some employees are remarkable, they have exactly the skills, competencies and knowledge that an institution needs. Many of us can recognize these employees once we have them, but how can we identify in advance who will be among the most valuable food scientists & technologists in our group? What exact skills, competencies and knowledge do they have? Does an excellent food scientist in industry have the same skills as one in research? Do the ideal skills change as a food scientist rises in responsibility? What about working in Southern vs. Northern Europe, are the same skills desired?

The Track-Fast project ( is addressing these questions: Track-Fast is a 3 ½ year Framework 7 project funded by the European Union and its main objectives are 1) to identify the training and career requirements of future European food scientists and technologists (FSTs), and 2) to implement a European strategy to recruit the next generation of FST leaders (Visit the project at The Food & Drink sector appears in dire need of remarkable employees who will become future leaders; thus we must identify what skills such a person should have and then encourage our best and brightest students along this path. Food & Drink is the number 1 manufacturing sector in Europe, yet it is losing importance in the global food market and consistently low in innovation rankings. If we add remarkable employees to our institutions, perhaps we can reverse these trends.

In 2010-2011, Track-Fast organized 16 workshops in which over 300 FSTs told us what a remarkable employee in their institution would be like. The FSTs came from research, industry, government and regulatory agencies, retail and distribution firms and consultancies. They brainstormed for half a day on the dream FST at low, medium and high levels of responsibility. They told us what skills, knowledge and competencies such an employee would have and then they told us where and when these skills could be obtained.

Who then is the ideal food scientist? In short, there isn’t one! Employment area matters – industry wants different skills than research organizations, geography matters – the dream food scientist in Greece is different than the one in the U.K. and, important for those who want to advance in their career, a remarkable senior food scientist does not have the same skills as his outstanding junior colleague.

Yet there were also commonalities in the dream Food & Drink employee: Communicating was the number 1, 2 or 3 skill in everyone’s dream food scientist; for all employers in all geographic regions and at all levels, a food scientist who is a remarkable employee is a food scientist who communicates well. There were many descriptions of good communication; we heard “English language” and “can communicate with other disciplines” and “communicates properly with senior management and with technical employees”. Communicating is talking, but also listening, as we heard “can understand people of all levels” and also writing, “can write a report of a research project”.

Other highly rated skills in the dream Food & Drink employee were Thinking & Solving Problems and Demonstrating Positive Attitudes & Behaviours. Noteworthy is that the socalled “Soft Skills” were mentioned 3 times more than Technical Skills like Product Development and Food Safety Management, which were among the top Technical Skills but not among the most desired FST skills overall. While FSTs state that during the University degree is the time to learn these skills, they also agree that most skills need repeated learning and rarely is a single course viewed as sufficient training in a given skill.

For many of us Soft Skills may seem more a part of Business or Psychology than Food Science, and in fact the traditional training of Food Scientists has not included skills in for example, Communicating, Problem Solving or Teamwork. But training a Food Scientist and Technologist means preparing him or her to leave the university and go to work, and the different workplaces are telling us that they want Food Scientists who have Soft Skills. The message is clear and now we must act – it’s time to prepare the remarkable FSTs of tomorrow by making sure they have not only technical competence, but also the personal attributes to lead the European Food & Drink sector into the future.

Dr Katherine FlynnDr. Katherine Flynn is the Scientific Secretary of the European Association for Food Safety, the ‘SAFE consortium’ (, and a Work Package leader for the Track-Fast project. She has a PhD in Biology and has taught many food-related courses as an Assoc. Prof. in both US and European universities. She has done research for US and European government agencies and has published peer-reviewed scientific articles as well as commentaries about the world of food.

The Track-Fast project is coordinated by Prof. Cristina L.M. Silva of the Universidade Católica Portuguesa – Escola Superior de Biotecnologia and involves 27 partners from 16 countries. The project began in Sept 2009 and has recently been extended through February 2013. It is officially: 2009 Project Track Fast: Training Requirements and Careers for Knowledge-based Food Science and Technology in Europe, FP7 KBBE 227220, and is funded with support from the European Commission. This document however reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.