AGRIFOOD INTERNSHIPS – POLISHING THE DIAMONDS OF THE FUTURE

What is an Internship? I suppose it depends on who you ask and in what industry sector placements happen. In the case of the Agrifood Technology Station, an Intern is a recently qualified graduate, preferably in Food Science & Technology (or Analytical Chemistry or other field as required).

Our Internship programme has been running for more than 10 years now, initially with reasonably good funding from the Technology Innovation Agency. However, this funding had been reduced significantly and the management thereof had been moved to the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research and further delegated to the South African Society for Cooperative Education. We have thus moved from the privileged position of having up to 10 Interns to the present 3 Interns, all of whom are funded by costs we recover from industry. It has thus placed strain on the capacity of ATS to conduct work just in terms of hands on board.

Our Interns are usually sought after in industry. This information is part anecdotal and part first-hand experience stemming from my interactions with industry. It would seem that, because our Interns are employed in activities relating to the real commercial world of big and smaller companies, they had developed an attitude and a set of sharpened skills which make them attractive. I personally call the experience at ATS similar to that of a finishing school. It rounds the rough edges of their skills, work ethic and personality in terms of operating in a team.

What more could a funder want? Taking raw graduates and polishing them!!! Alas, funding constraints at the Department of Science & Technology has eroded the capacity to push the workforce envelope. And yes, there are other funding streams for Internships but these are usually bound up in the red tape of application processes, the detail of which will not be expanded on here. Light at the end of the tunnel is that the FoodBev SETA had signed a contract with CPUT to allocate internship funding (hopefully 5).

Now, do not get me wrong on the cohort of Interns we have had over the years! It was not all a cakewalk in that some Interns did not perform well (a minority) or did not fit the job for one or other reason. However, we have had some outstanding Interns over the years. I had asked the collective staff in the   Food Science & Technology building to name an Intern who struck them as having had great character, skills and chutzpah! I had received quite a few names but, in the interests of brevity I have had to choose three on which to dwell. Here is a pen sketch of three (with apologies to all the other Interns):

Mr. Mmaphuti Ratau was an outstanding intern who had eventually become a Technical Assistant at ATS. This means he had completed the standard one-year contract. Since he was then also enrolled for postgraduate studies, we decided to create a new category i.e. Technical Assistant. What a pleasure to have an educated pair of hands who had some research skills and who could conduct literature searches and write summary reports.

He summarises his own experiences:

Being an Intern and TA supplemented my classroom theory with on the job-skills (practical skills). It gave me confidence in my own abilities. It also clarified the direction for my career path. I learned both the soft and hard skills. It gave me confidence during interviews as well, knowing I had this added background. The rotation between different activities (namely: microbiology lab, physical food properties, chemistry, instrument, sensory, pilot plant) made me a well-rounded individual to fit most opportunities.

 I am currently working as a Product Developer for a spice company. I just learned the difference between wors and boerewors! Oh yes, I also learned that we actually waste about 2 litres of water while waiting for the shower to get hot (in Cape Town).

Ms. Busisiwe Mazibuko, pictured below, was another such Intern. Her pleasant and sunny personality helped her do her job well, including spending a lot too much time in the microbiology areaJ However, she handled all task set for her with aplomb. See further below how she describes her own experience.

The hands-on experience we got at ATS is invaluable and it is definitely not something you can be taught in the classroom. With other Internships, you just run errands and be the “tea girl” sort of, but we were given the opportunity to be hands on, work with different equipment, run analysis/  tests ourselves, and report results. In addition, we also learnt a lot of skills like communication, team work and time management.

 As a Micro team, we used to have Monday meetings to give feedback on the previous week’s tasks. Everyone was forced to do a short report. So, I would say this helped in making a person loosen up and be able to speak to a group and answer questions.

 After leaving ATS, I worked for Task Applied Science (they do TB Clinical trials) as a Laboratory Technologist, 2 years after that I was promoted to Supervisor. I think the leadership skills I gained at ATS helped me to get that promotion. Currently, I am at UKZN, working as a Senior Technician in their plant pathology department and again, if it was not for the hands on experience i got at ATS, I would have struggled in this job.

 When I left Western Cape (ATS to be specific), I thought I would die without those Gatsby Fridays… but I got to KZN and was introduced to bunny chow. WOW! FIRE! I can now eat while sweating and blowing my nose all at the same time! #Multitasking101!!!

 Unathi Solilo is an Analytical Chemistry graduate who brightened up our lives in that particular context. I found him to be a particularly pleasant gent who is multi-skilled as he describes below. Always willing to help, even when it was more in the area of food technology itself. I think he got a lot more than he expected since his training was used specifically applied to a commodity i.e. food. I suspect that diversified is skills significantly outside of the pure analytical field of chemistry.

In his own words:

ATS has helped me in so many ways. Firstly, it helped me out of my unemployment I was in for a little over 2 years. Truly Grateful for that. It also help me regain confidence in my ability to perform well and improve my skills in the field of study I had chosen. It helped me with the skills to harmoniously work with others and be a team member others can rely on.

 It has helped me with Job Interviews (not that I had many).  ATS Allows Interns to be hands on, especially with expensive equipment. That gives a boost in confidence to be able to adapt to any instrumentation presented in front of you. So, in interviews, you can talk about something you have worked with before. I’m currently employed by the Agricultural Research Council since the time I left ATS as a Research Technician in an Analytical Services laboratory.

 On weekends and in my spare time, I created a business of my own. It is in 3 parts:

(1) Clothing Label called TOTB (think out the box) e.g. a Winter Sweater goes for R370 each.

(2) Created a Shooter I call “The Babylon Shooter” @ R15 a shooter. Pretty looking and great tasting shooter that honours and compliments Women’s beauty.  

(3) Then I Sing/Rap with a stage name Mr Babylon with a single out called ‘’Just us two”…!

 One day this year I’ll come perform a song or 2 at ATS!

I think you will agree that these are three individuals of character who will add value to an employer and to the country, both in terms of skills and also in terms of all their other character traits that make them who they are! Special!!

Larry Dolley