Consumer scientists, also known as home economists, study the needs of people as consumers of goods and services, and give advice on the further development of those goods and services. It is a multi-disciplinary profession and can be found in a wide range of industry sectors. A consumer scientist acts as a communication point between consumers and manufacturers.
The work of a consumer scientist is varied, and may include:
Food product development: working for food producers or large supermarket chains, they might research consumer tastes, and design new dishes and food products to interest shoppers.
Product and service development: advising on the development of kitchen products, such as dishwashers and furniture, or products for leisure and entertainment. They may also advise on public services, such as housing, or financial services.
Quality assurance: designing procedures and testing programmes to make sure every product meets legal requirements and stays in good condition.
Marketing: helping manufacturers devise new products and ensure people buy them. They may do market research, give advice on packaging design, or plan the advertising and distribution of the product.
Consumer advice: customer service advisers tell people how to get the best from products and deal with complaints. Working for organisations representing consumer rights, they may take cases to court or campaign for changes to the law.
Media and journalism: writing articles or presenting programmes on cookery, family health issues or new products on the market. They may publicise cases to defend consumer rights. Others work in public relations, writing publicity leaflets and press releases, organising exhibitions, and liaising with the media. Most TV cookery and home shows have at least one consumer scientist on the team, testing recipes and features.
Catering: either hotel or restaurant management, or giving advice to schools, residential care homes, hospitals or nurseries on how to provide healthy meals and safer living conditions.
Education: as health education officers or health promotion specialists, they teach people how to lead healthier lives. If they have specialised in food or textiles, they may teach these subjects, in secondary schools or in further or higher education.
Government: working for agencies such as the Food Standards Agency, or as a parliamentary researcher making sure food safety and other consumer protection laws are upheld.
Consumer scientists usually work 36 to 40 hours a week, Monday to Friday, but may work some evenings and weekends and take time off in the week. They are likely to spend time reading, researching and writing reports on top of their normal work hours.
Depending on the job, the work environment could be indoors, in an office, laboratory, kitchen or classroom, or some combination of these.
Consumer scientists often travel, including abroad, and visit different environments, such as factories, farms and catering establishments.
Starting salaries may be around £18,000 to £20,000 a year.
There are probably up to 5,000 people working in this type of role in the food industry, but there are likely to be more than 25,000 working in the wider area of consumer affairs.
Consumer scientists can work for:
- Producers of food and other consumer goods
- Retail chains, particularly supermarkets
- Public relations and marketing agencies
- Food marketing bodies
- Exhibition organisers
- Hotels and restaurants
- Local authorities
- Consumer pressure groups
- Secondary schools, colleges and universities
- Magazines and newspapers
- Food research bodies
- Advisory and consumer organisations
- Gas and electricity companies
- Health authorities
- Voluntary organisations
Most consumer scientists enter this job with an HNC/HND, Foundation degree or degree in consumer studies, consumer science, home economics or food studies. HNC's are normally taken part time while in work.
For an HND, applicants usually need at least one A level/H grade and four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent.
For a degree, students need at least two A levels/H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent.
Most courses do not specify any particular subjects for entry, but relevant ones include design and technology (food technology), home economics, lifestyle and consumer technology, health and food technology, fashion and textile technology, and food and nutrition.
To train later for school teaching (through a Postgraduate Certificate in Education), applicants will also need GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3) in English, maths and possibly a science.
Those without a relevant degree could benefit by gaining experience in food manufacturing or catering. It is also possible to become a consumer scientist or home economist with NVQ's/SVQ's in Food Preparation and Cooking or Food and Drink Manufacturing Operations, or with a BTEC/SQA national certificate/diploma in a hospitality or catering subject.
Once in employment, training will depend on the job. Many firms offer in-house training. Food producers, and appliance and household equipment manufacturers also run courses to give the consumer scientist a greater understanding of products they are working with or promoting.
Some training may lead to NVQ's/SVQ's, for example in food preparation and cookery, hospitality, customer service or marketing. In smaller companies, training is often practically based.
There are also courses relevant to many of the occupational areas in which a consumer scientist may work, for example teaching, health promotion, social policy, business, marketing and journalism.
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A consumer scientist should:
With such a wide range of possible employers, consumer scientists can move from one organisation to another, and can progress into management in most areas.
They may need to move to a different geographical area to gain promotion.
Food Standards Agency, Aviation House,
125 Kingsway, London WC2B 6NH
Tel: 020 7276 8000
Improve Ltd, Ground Floor, Providence House,
2 Innovation Close, Heslington, York YO10 5ZF
Tel: 0845 644 0448
Institute of Food Science and Technology,
5 Cambridge Court, 210 Shepherds Bush Road, London W6 7NJ
Tel: 020 7603 6316
Additional resources for job seekers and those already in a job.