Working in a blood bank in the school holidays sparked her love of science, Cathy recalls. “In high school, they talked about girls being able to do anything – I don’t remember wanting anything else but science.”
When the opportunity came to spend one school day a week at the Universal College of Learning (UCOL) in Palmerston North, Cathy leapt at the chance.
A year later, having completed stage 1 of a New Zealand Certificate in Science, she obtained a job with Fonterra where they paid for her to continue her studies. However, after meeting some food technologists who worked across the road, Cathy realised she couldn’t progress much further without a full degree. After working and studying part-time for six years at Massey University, she finally achieved her dream of becoming a food technologist.
“I liked the idea of food technology because it’s something that people deal with every day. Everyone has to eat food and it’s fascinating because it’s always changing.”
That was in 1996. Since then she has had several interesting roles, including working with Watties on the production line and travelling to London to work in a potato chip factory and become a quality technologist for Cerebos Greggs.
Now, 19 years on, Cathy runs her own company, McFoodies, which has been in business since 2000 and acts as an agency to contract out food technologists. That’s not to say she’s sitting back and letting the work come to her, however.
“I now do a lot of labelling work. Everything in the food retail area has to have certain things on them so I do the nutrition information, allergen declarations, and ingredients listings.”
It’s not as simple as it sounds. “There are a lot of rules to follow. Despite the common misconception that many dangerous ingredients are in our food, everything is thoroughly checked for safety. If they [the ingredients] were dangerous, they wouldn’t be there in the first place.”
Auditing is another important part of her business. “I go into factories for manufacturers and have a look at their systems to make sure that if they said they’re going to be doing something, they’re doing it as they said they would, and also that they have techniques in place that are suitable.”
Clearly, food technology offers many different career pathways. “It can lead you into all sorts of different jobs,” says Cathy. “The technology is always changing and it’s also international.”
However, students who are not working in the industry while they’re studying can’t expect to get work straight after finishing their degrees, she says.
“You definitely need to have an industry-related job in the holidays… work in as many areas as you can so that you can see what it’s like.”
The job search struggle is only a temporary issue, however, and the CareersNZ website rates employment opportunities as high, due to a shortage of skilled people in food technology.
“The further you get into your career, the easier it is to get jobs because you’re gaining more and more experience,” explains Cathy. “It’s a really fantastic career to get involved with and there are constant opportunities that you can take along the way.“