Robert hopes to shed light on a career in Quality Assurance and Food Safety that may be completely unknown to many people. He provides valuable insights and advice based on his 18 years in the food manufacturing industry. For those interested in a career in food, Robert suggests reading The Jungle, written by Upon Sinclair. It talks about the horrible things that used to happen in the stockyards of Chicago. A lot of the meatpacking history is still visible in these historic areas of Chicago. The Jungle lead to public outrage over sanitation issues in the meat packing industry. It was not long before laws were passed which served to reform the practices of the industry and lead to huge improvements in food safety standards.
Date of Interview: 8/6/2021
Robert is a former Quality Assurance and Food Safety Manager. He’s currently in the market for a new role in the industry, but is also working with his wife to open an ice cream and frozen yogurt cafe in their local town.
Answer: I was with my most recent employer for three years. They were a privately owned co-packer. Co-packers receive food manufactured by a large consumer product company in a large box (referred to as a “tote”) and package the food into a single serving or family sized boxes you purchase at a grocery store.
Industry you work in
City you work in
Answer: Northwest suburb of Chicago
[Compensation data was not provided by the interviewee. The below compensation information was retrieved from Glassdoor.com data. These averages come from compensation data that is self-reported by employees of the company or companies.]
$74,391 is the average base salary for a Food Safety/Quality Assurance Manager in the United States.
$43,902 is the average base salary for a Food Technician in the United States. This is a common starting position after graduating from college as suggested by Robert. This type of role is a precursor to eventually becoming a manager.
Years working in your field, including time at previous employers
Answer: Eighteen years total, which includes time working at six different employers. All of these employers have been fairly similar. The type of food changed, but the roles were the same. I’ve worked in dairy, juice, baking, confection, and co-packing.
Did you go to college or pursue any other secondary education? If yes, was it required for your job?
Answer: I did go to college, but went to become a history and biology teacher. When I started student teaching, I decided it wasn’t for me. I left school and went to work. I ended up with only an Associate’s Degree (AS).
What college did you go to?
Answer: I went to Prairie State College [Chicago Heights, IL]
Do you have any other professional licenses or certifications?
Answer: My job out of college was working at a lab. They were taking people that just had a certain number of science credits and trained them in food chemistry. I worked there for about seven years. That experience in food microbiology appealed to a lot of employers. My experience at a world class lab helped bridge the gap to new opportunities despite only having an associate’s degree. Transitioning from the lab into food manufacturing required me to get a certification, so I had to take some courses to do so.
The most specific certification that relates to working in quality food safety is internal auditor certification training. It teaches how to nitpick a facility, identify unclean areas, and audit programs to properly trace and inspect a facility. Generally, it’s a three-day course and you also need to complete a three-day course for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). These are the two main certifications that are necessary to function in this role.
The FDA created some new regulations which took effect in 2012 and were part of the Food Safety Modernization Act. The regulation changed HACCP to HARPC. Basically, these ask you to evaluate your process from beginning to end (i.e. from the purchaser of ingredients to consumers). It requires taking a look at what hazards may exist in this process and where you can apply control points to prevent hazards from occurring. Additional training came along with this (the HARPC training/certification).
Also, becoming a Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) assures you have enough knowledge to conduct a hazard analysis based on your education, industry experience, and outside certification. The PCQI is another three-day course, which I have completed.
One other certification for a specific audit standard is a SQF Practitioner. There are outside audit groups that come and audit your food facility to make sure things are being done correctly. They give a score or grade and list any nonconformities.
It is pretty common to hold all of these certifications at my level and above.
What is the minimum required schooling or training for your job?
Answer: Nowadays it would be a bachelor’s degree. Some of the larger companies are even looking for a bachelor’s plus additional schooling. Generally a bachelor’s should be in biology, chemistry, or microbiology.
The typical career path would begin with a role as a technician upon completing a bachelor’s degree. As a technician, you’d start working on the line, checking packages, and metal detectors. You’d be doing all of the certification aspects of the food safety plan. These types of roles would lead to a promotion to supervisor and then manager.
Do you feel that your school’s reputation had a significant impact on getting a job in your field?
Job Demand & Stability
How long did it take to land your first job in your field after graduating?
Answer: My experience is unique. After I left college with my associate’s degree, I knew I did not want to incur more debt without a clear career path. I knew I needed to work, so I started looking for a job. A friend of mine (an anthropology student at the University of Illinois) informed me of an anthropology dig not far from where I lived. I agreed to work there, but realized archeology was not as exciting as an Indiana Jones movie. It’s more like working in a chain gang that digs deep holes (up to 5 feet down) to find features. It’s hard work. Dirt needs to be sifted and screened and it’s exhausting. The work got me more experience in science because I started doing some carbon dating samples so I was getting trained on early principles related to food microbiology. This little bit of science lead to another word-of-mouth opportunity at a lab.
Did you have any internships?
If you lost your job tomorrow, would it be difficult to get a similar or better job?
Answer: There are jobs out there – they just don’t pay well. There are opportunities in the job market for someone coming out with a bachelor’s degree that goes into food manufacturing but they may not find a job that pays very well. They’ll find entry level roles that pay probably $15-$18/hour and they will need a couple years of experience in order to be considered for a supervisory role. The supervisory roles may pay around $40,000-$60,000 per year. Then several more years of experience would be needed to move up to a manager role.
In my experience, I would not say that a career in the sciences is lucrative. But it’s an honorable career. The job is to keep people safe. As a Food Safety & Quality Assurance Manager, you’re responsible for millions of packages of food that go out the door every week. You’re responsible for someone not biting into a piece of metal, getting E. coli, or any of the other horrible things can happen to food.
You have to be an ethical person to go into this field. These roles become difficult when the pressure is on and food needs to go out the door, otherwise the customer is going to be upset. There are internal pressures to deliver food, even if there’s an issue that should prevent food from going out. This doesn’t necessarily relate to contaminated food that would hurt somebody, but perhaps packages that might not meet net weight, not meet labeling requirements, or improperly sealed bags which could lead to stale food.
Advice For Success
What advice would you provide to someone interesting in becoming a Quality Assurance and Food Safety Manager?
Answer: It would be better to work for a large company rather than a small one. They will have more resources devoted to making sure things are done the right way. For example, there may be more than one Quality Assurance and Food Safety Manager that would cover other shifts. This also allows for more flexibility.
Nature of Job and Schedule
Describe what you do
Answer: On a day-to-day basis, you’re time is probably split 50-50 between a desk job (e.g. doing research, emails, customer complaint handling, and bench top lab analysis) and being on the manufacturing floor walking through the rooms and talking to quality assurance techs to see how things are going. You will make sure people are washing hands, wearing hair nets, using the correct brooms in each room (to avoid cross contamination), and following other protocols.
Describe your daily and weekly schedule
Answer: It’s usually Monday-Friday and sometimes on Saturday or Sunday. Most food manufacturing plants are open 24/7 to make use of the equipment. I would typically work Monday-Friday, 8-12 hours per day. Sometimes more if there are new food trials going on. It’s not your typical 9AM-5PM job.
What parts of your job are repetitive?
Answer: One of the goals of being an effective Quality Assurance and Food Safety Manager is for every day to be repetitive. You should review documents and sign off on them everyday (e.g. for weight checks and metal detector records). Often you see the same manufacturing for weeks on end.
What parts of your job require learning or performing new duties/responsibilities?
Answer: There are always new challenges to deal with such as [setting up procedures for] a new customer or a machine breaking. This can require reviewing the line to make sure no foreign items are in the bags. Ideally, the goal is for everything to be repetitive and boring.
Describe the setting you work in most
Answer: It depends on the type of food manufacturer. At a co-packer, there would not be a lab. Time would be split 50% at a desk and 50% in the plant. Other food facilities would have a lab. If your plant has a lab and testing requirements then your time would be split further (perhaps 25%-33% of your time spent in the lab).
Describe the nature and frequency of working with other people while doing your job
Answer: Usually a Quality Manager will have a team of direct reports [supervisors]. The Quality Manager also deals with indirect reports [technicians] on a daily basis. The job also requires working with other departments (e.g. operations to get food out the door), sales, and research & development if a new product needs to be run and new quality checks are needed. There is also interaction with direct customers, as well as the end consumers in some cases.
Does your job require travel?
Answer: Yes, I was a Director of Quality Assurance for a year that required travel about 40% of the time. I travelled typically every other week for 3-4 days to help other manufacturing facilities. The travel requirements depend on the role. At some places a Quality Assurance Director could be a road warrior [frequent traveller] and at other places you would only work at one location since the plant might be huge.
What is the most enjoyable or rewarding part of your job?
Answer: The pride you get when you walk through a grocery store and see how many items you dealt with. You can pick up an item and tell if it came from your plant based on the codes used.
What is the most challenging or stressful part of your job?
Answer: The pressure that challenges your ethics can be challenging. As a Quality Assurance Manager, you are challenged by Operations to bend the rules. That can be almost a daily challenge and it can be exhausting.
Does your job provide work/life balance?
Answer: Mine is probably shaped by the fact that I have worked more for smaller companies. These have been smaller, family-owned companies. My work/life balance has not been great. A lot of the mom & pop places don’t have more than one Quality Manager and the plant runs all the time. It becomes a challenge on how to meet the demands of the company at all times.
How much time off do you take from work?
Answer: No more than 3 weeks each year.
Any interesting/enjoyable perks of your job?
Answer: I got to see and taste food before it was released in the market. I was developing a lot of the flavors at the juice company where I worked. There was one particular new raspberry energy drink that became very popular as a mixer.
Why did you pick your job?
Answer: I actually did not set out to get into this career. That’s also true for many others. I’ve hardly met anyone that has sought it out specifically.
What would you do if you had to change careers?
Answer: I would probably open a brewery if I had the capital. I’d definitely have an advantage working in food, since I have been doing it as a hobby for 12 years.