In the United States, school counselors often meet with middle school students to discuss their future education plans and career objectives. Students who express an interest in advanced professional careers are given advice on an appropriate high school curriculum to follow that supports preparation for college. Those who plan to attend college but have not decided on a specific major will be directed to a general course of study while making a final decision.
Once in college, there is a grace period before a major must be declared, but eventually one must be selected so the appropriate elective courses can be completed. Students interested in obtaining an advanced degree must complete the required post graduate courses needed for a master’s or doctorate.
Not all students are college bound; students who may be interested in working in the trades (electrician, plumber, mechanic, computer technician) are directed accordingly to short term programs in their chosen field. Some of these skill sets can be obtained at local community colleges or through online certificate programs. Many of these professions are overseen by licensing entities to ensure that competence requirements are met on a continuing basis. Many students enter the workforce directly from high school, particularly in areas where large manufacturing facilities or distribution centers are located.
Until recent years, the traditional academic track was not available to students interested in a career in food safety. Even today, a mere handful of schools offer a food safety major, limiting access to the broader public and restricting the number of graduates annually available for employment. In fact, few were even aware there was such a track unless a food manufacturer was located nearby.
As a result, staffing in the field of food safety has traditionally prioritized ongoing workplace education coupled with skills development and formal external training as needed to meet regulatory requirements. Otherwise known as “workforce development,” this route allows employers to meet the job-specific needs of food safety in the absence of more traditional academic options.
Workforce development can be described as an interconnected set of solutions developed to meet employer needs for skilled workers. In food safety, this can include a wide range of knowledge, given the diversity of food manufacturing techniques and ever-increasing food hazards. The ideal goal of workforce development is to create a structure in which workers are placed in jobs where there are career development opportunities, providing an incentive for workers to systematically advance by acquiring the new skills and additional knowledge needed to achieve the goal of promotion to a management position. That’s quite a mouthful, just to say that there are limited opportunities to pursue a defined career path in food safety.
Along Came FSMA
As new microbiological hazards emerged in the 1990s, external training in Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) became a USDA-FSIS requirement, and the position of HACCP manager represented an advanced career step for those in the meat and poultry industry. HACCP training was a one-time, three- or five-day course that did not typically require an exam for completion. A simple certificate of attendance was adequate to prove completion, and there was no requirement for ongoing professional development. This remained one of the most advanced food safety positions on the production floor until the Food Safety Modernization Act’s (FSMA’s) Preventive Controls regulations were published.
Under FSMA, the HACCP manager role in FSIS was elevated to the Preventive Controls Qualified Individual (PCQI) role for FDA-regulated producers. FSMA placed the ultimate responsibility for food safety on the “owner, operator, or agent in charge” and required all personnel to be qualified for their assigned positions. The role of PCQI expanded workforce training requirements, requiring a minimum of eight hours per year of ongoing professional development training, but still remained a single external course from an approved trainer accompanied by a certificate of completion that is applicable to all types of foods produced. From produce to cupcakes, a PCQI certificate is transferable to any FDA-regulated facility.