OTM 6: Understanding the expectations of a food industry advanced beginner


The Advanced Beginner is the next level above novice in building your career as a food safety and quality professional. At this level supervision of activities becomes more limited.

Welcome to Episode 6 of Off the Menu.  Tune in, or read the adapted podcast transcription, to find out more on what the ‘Advanced Beginner’ level means in terms of knowledge, skills, attributes, and work experience.

Episode 6 Highlights

Adapted Podcast Transcription

Here is a transcript of what we spoke about in this episode.  Both Pete and I have a lot of fun talking together so if there is anything in the transcript that doesn't make sense, listening to the actual podcast may put the words into context. Remember, don't take life too seriously.....and have a laugh 🙂

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Amanda:  Welcome back to Off the Menu. I'm here with Peter Holtmann today.

Peter: The last episode we talked about being a novice in the food industry and starting on your career path. We’re now progressing into a higher level of mastery, which would be advanced beginner.

Amanda:  Okay. I'm excited to learn about this advance beginner. Pete, can you please explain what an advanced beginner is?

What is an advanced beginner?

Peter:  This is someone that can start to work in a more autonomous function than previous and will have a more limited amount of supervision. So they are still learning processes. They are starting to have a more detailed knowledge around a specific process or a component of a process, but still new to the world of food production, food safety, and will have a limited amount of autonomy to solve problems and make decisions.

Amanda:  Okay, that is a good summary. How long would this whole advanced beginner phase go for, do you believe? On average?

Peter:  I think this is the next 12 months. The novice was up to 12 months. I would say an advanced beginner is up to the two-year mark in employment.

Amanda:  Okay. We are going to keep on the same kind of structure that we did in the novice episode and we're going to go through the experience attributes, skills, knowledge. When we start getting into this advanced beginner, Pete, let's start with the knowledge expectations of an advanced beginner.

Knowledge expectations

Peter:  I think these people really have learned the basics of the role, which is what are the procedures and processes that are meant to be followed at this workplace and in this job around this function. What we are probably finding at this point in time is they have attained the deeper level of understanding around a process.

It could be cook-chill process, it could be a sanitising process, it could be pick and pack process, or it could be a distribution process along the way. As we know, a food production environment has, or even a food growing, or food handling has many different processes and many different steps, and you may not be exposed to all of those on site.

You may have been given a limited scope of control and responsibility versus authority. You will have some responsibility now for ensuring that process meets its operating conditions.

Amanda:  It is very much department based. If we are in the bread department or the dough department (if we are talking about a bakery) or the packing department or the cleaning team, it is more limited or has quite strict boundaries around what areas that you actually work in and what you have access to.

Peter:  That is exactly right. You have been given a little bit more trust because you have proven your capabilities from your novice days. You have learnt the language and the peculiar language that comes with the site. And what I mean by that, things like acronyms, a machine might have a particular acronym, for example go to the JV 58 machine and do an SAP on the PLC… some people will ask what on earth you're talking about? If you have been there 12 months, you'll get it.

Task-based supervision

Amanda:  With this person being in this one area, would they still be getting supervised? As you know we talked about in the novice level, the supervision was still there because they did not really have the knowledge. People at this level, advanced beginner, is there a kind of a task-based supervision still going on?

Peter:  It’s present but it's not as heavily supervised as what it was before. It could be that the period of time in which you need to report in will expand. Instead of coming and telling me when the task is done to would change to ‘come and check in halfway through the day’ or ‘come and check in at the end of the day’ and tell me how things have gone. There is still a level of supervision that is there, but they are giving you more autonomy in the role.

They are giving you responsibility to complete tasks, but you won't necessarily have the authority to make decisions to change tasks, change the order of tasks, change the nature of the task or the outcome of what's happening in that process.

Amanda:  We are not doing any level of innovation; we are just still following procedure. For example, most likely at a plant worker level as opposed to a team leader or a supervisor. We are just working, hopefully working efficiently as a plant operator, following instruction, doing what we are supposed to do, but with a little less supervision.

An example of task-based supervision

Peter:  When I started this laboratory role that I have mentioned before in a food manufacturing place, I progressed from the laboratory systems into the regulatory department. Part of that job was to review ingredient labels according to the formulation.

A formulation might have 30 different ingredients in it, and I had to categorise ingredients into identifiers. I had to determine whether it was a food additive, whether it was it a preservative, whether it was it a natural, identical flavour, whatever. I had to do these things and then create the ingredient label according to what is there.

I was given some capabilities and some autonomous work functions to come up with the label, but I was not able to release that label to go on packaging. It had to go back to a technical manager to review all the work I did and then approve that. I was able to do some things, but I could not sign off on the work that I'd done.

Amanda:  You were more the ‘doer’ then? Please put this label together and then I will check what you have done.

Peter:  Yes, and it was batches of labels. It would not be like every single label where I would need to take the label to my manager, have it reviewed and then start on the next label.

Understanding multiple functions of food ingredients

Amanda:  It sounds like you were really allocated a task that you had to perform and perform proficiently for then someone else to review that work.

Peter:  Yes. It also involved talking to the compounder of the formulation. The actual chemist or the bench worker that put the product together… I would talk to them about the ingredients. If you are uncertain about categorising an ingredient, you could go and talk to the formulator and ask them what its function was.

Because sometimes, as you know Amanda, some ingredients have multiple functions. Some could act as an antioxidant or some can be classified as a preservative. Some can be used as a processing aid to make it a free-flowing powder. It depends on how it is being used.

That is where the complexity started to turn up in the role. By using your knowledge obtained from the novice level to understand, okay, in this formulation that ingredient is being used for an anti-caking agent or in this formulation it is being used as an antioxidant.

Developing our communication skills

Amanda:  I think in that situation, we are starting to hone in on our communication skills because we are having to talk to other people outside of our little bubble. We need to be able to converse with those people in the labs or the people who are putting those formulas together and be able to talk on a technical level.

You are starting to get more knowledge around these additives in your example. I think also that we are starting to build more verbal communication skills. Being able to express to someone else, what you are trying to do with the information you are requesting from somebody. I think that is a big, big part of it.

Peter:  It really is. You do not have the level of trust yet to sign off on the work that you have done, but you have been given enough trust to go and find the information you need to complete the task. Whereas on a novice level, that information would have been handed to you.

Amanda:  I think back to when I was a health inspector, I started to do in this whole advanced beginner phase. I was in being allowed to, similar to you, go off and do the work, but it was still being reviewed when it came back. I would go out and do an inspection on a food premises. If that inspection was going to result in some type of enforcement action, for example, having to go to court, I would then put the court documents together. My boss would always review those court documents because he did not want to get to court and them to be wrong.

Peter:  I can think of another job. During university I had some holiday work at an environmental testing lab, which meant doing again more wet chemistry work or as we call it bucket chemistry.

It was a lot of chemical analysis, titrations, all those sorts of things. This time though the work was for court actions. Someone had done a soil testing or something like that on, on a work site, and it came back with a particular chemical reading or a heavy metal reading. My job was to retest the sample to either corroborate the result or to provide the new results.

It came with a high level of risk, perhaps another level of complexity. I had the responsibility to manage a number of samples I was doing in a day and using the right methods. So, I would have to find the right chemical analysis method from the procedures and apply it. But someone was always checking my work and making sure I had done the correct work.

Identifying and communicating problems

Amanda:  I think regardless of what kind of area you are working in, whether it be government or laboratory or you are a plant worker, it's still going to be the same kind of things that you're doing. You do the work, you know how to do the work, you can follow procedure. You are quite good at doing that task. At the advanced beginner level, you do not tend to make mistakes, because you have made them at a novice level.

We are into around about the second year of being in the position, but someone is still reviewing or verifying that what you have done is correct. I think based on that, if you have stuffed up, you have got that ability to recognise that you've stuffed up and to fix the problem.

Peter:  That is really important. It is about being able to identify problems, either something that you have created or something that someone else has created. But definitely being able to identify there is a problem in the product or the process or even the procedure involved in what you are doing.

It is not necessarily meant to be resolving those problems, but definitely communicating that there is a problem.  Again, communication skills improve now or increase. You are expected to talk perhaps more often to more people about more complexity.

Amanda:  Keep in mind that communications is not just about your verbal communication but also includes written skills. Your role at the advanced beginner level may include the need to fill out monitoring records of some sort. Previously, as a novice, you were not given that responsibility.

You maybe have to do checks on the metal detector, or you have to do temperature monitoring and you record that information. You need to be able to write that stuff clearly so people can understand what you have written. As Pete said before, recognising also when there is a problem.

Peter:  And the problems are becoming more important in your role. Not creating problems, not creating more problems, but definitely identifying what could be a problem and noticing when it is a problem.

I think what comes out of this as well as the ability to start analysing the nature of the problem that you are identifying, is this a big problem? Is this a bad problem? Is it going to stop the production line? Is it going to slow it down? Does it stop the plant for the day? Is it about identifying the person or the or the process that is causing it?

You don't have to go into the detail, but I think what we're looking for here is particularly when I was employing people at these levels, there's someone that can do some cursory analysis of a situation and say, “Hey, we've got a problem that's occurring here and this is how the problem is occurring”. Not necessarily why it is occurring, which is a deeper analysis or root cause analysis, but there is a problem occurring and this is where it is occurring.

Responding to problems

Amanda:  For those people who are familiar with HACCP, and going through that process, you will have a monitoring action and you will have a critical limit, especially around CCPs, QCPs, and RCPs.

If you're based in the USA, you will have your preventive controls that set your critical limits that are part of your monitoring process. There should be some type of procedure already in place around what do you do if things go wrong.

At the advanced beginner level, you're not expected to come up with the, ‘what do you do?’. Somebody else at a high level has already written that. You just have to have the ability to be able to follow that direction and initially to be able to identify that this doesn't actually meet our critical limit, or our critical limit has been exceeded. That should be the trigger point at this level, advanced beginner, to then follow that corrective action procedure.

Peter:  I will give you another example. When I was in the food flavouring company, I was still doing the regulatory work. There were times when I was called back into the lab to work because they might've been short staffed, or it was busy or it was a holiday period or what have you. So, I had to learn the necessary skills to work in the lab. In a number of different functions.

At this time. It was around about, let's call it 2001, when HACCP started to rear its ugly head in Australia, we had some critical control points put in. What I was in charge of, back in the laboratory, was doing the testing and when those critical limits were being exceeded. In this case it was around chemicals. I would have to then go back out into the production area and raise it with the production team to say, “your critical limit has been exceeded” to which I then start putting in the necessary corrective action for it. So, I had to communicate to people that a problem was occurring, that I've identified the problem, that I'd recorded the problem in the laboratory records, but then I was also instigating some sort of corrective action.

Amanda:  Okay. You were not expected to then, as you said, go deeper and do any type of root cause analysis. It is just we need to stop this from affecting our product going forward.

Growing in confidence

Peter:  Yeah, that is right. I think if we look at the type of attributes developing, and perhaps you are also in your role, your confidence was definitely growing because you're now being charged with the level of responsibility that you didn't have before. That comes with trust. Responsibility and trust are intimately linked. You are probably feeling a little bit more recognised in what you're doing.

Amanda:  I think also with that confidence, the more knowledgeable and the more at ease you feel with your level of knowledge and doing something, you do feel a lot more confident. Your confidence might be more now you have been there for 18 months, nearly going on two years. You are confident in the fact that you know what you are doing, you know what your job is.

Peter:  Absolutely. If you were handed a bag of Lego bricks now and asked to make a house out of it, I think you are going to be pretty well assured. You know how to build a house out of Lego bricks. Whereas you might not have been able to do that at the novice stage. You might have asked, how big, how tall, what colour, all those things which may have been handed to you these days. You are not given that level of direction. You are expected to understand how that happens.

Amanda:  At the advanced beginner stage.

Peter:  That is exactly right. It means people are expecting you to understand the process that you are responsible for and that you will be able to identify when issues occur within the process because you're become very familiar with the process.

Amanda:  I think that if you are in a position now and you do not actually understand the why, why we do stuff, you need to have a conversation with your management around knowing that stuff.  If people understand the why as opposed to just being told to do something, you are going to get a better uptake of compliance.

Understanding the 'why'

Peter:  Absolutely. You are starting to touch on a really important attribute around commitment now, and that you are showing a level of commitment to your job and to the organisation.  This builds when you become familiar with the organisation and the principle of ‘why’. Why does the sequence of events happen in this order? What happens when those sequence of events are breached? And why is this important to our organisation?

Not every organisation produces the same product in the same manner to get the same outcome. Why? Because they have different customers with different needs and different price expectations as well. You may have come from another company where you may have been doing general analysis in a laboratory.

You have now been employed into your new company because you understand how to do the analysis, but it's slightly different for this company. You are now about to learn the ‘why’ of why they do it differently. Not, “Hey, I've always done it this way, therefore I'm going to continue to do it this way”.

Amanda:  You could have come from a completely different industry. Maybe you worked in fish farming before, but now you're in oyster farming. Even though they both handle seafood, they are two quite different processing processes. It is the same with lobster farming or whatever. It can be vastly different.

You are still going to have a level of novelty going into that new position just because you are learning a new process. However, I would expect that it would end up being a lot shorter timeframe because you are really just doing the knowledge side of stuff as opposed to these other skills around communication or even attributes around commitment.

The motivation to learn

Peter:  Yes. You are also relying on your work experience to carry you through into the new role. We are starting to touch on the whole concept of competency here and what makes a competent person. What we talk about is you have the necessary attributes to convert your knowledge and skills into outcomes for that process. That is where work experience comes from – it is the demonstration of your ability to convert your knowledge using your skills into an output.

Amanda:  I think having that knowledge is a good base level at the advanced beginner level. If you have got the experience, if you have got the skill, if you've got the attributes, you can really go and learn. I am a big believer that you can learn anything. Especially if you have got that attribute of commitment - a willingness to learn.

Peter:  Let me give you an example around this. It is a good point. I was doing some consulting work on the human resources side for a large global organisation. They have more than 165,000 employees. At any given time, they have got about 10,000 people on the waiting list to come into this organisation. I think I have actually mentioned this in a previous podcast we have done. I was talking to the global HR director about why people do not learn functions and tasks and why they have such high turnover. I was trying to impress upon them the point around personal attribute. What finally brought it all home for these guys was saying you can provide $1 million of training to an individual and they still will not deploy that training in the workplace.

Amanda:  Why?

Peter: Because they are not motivated to learn the knowledge and use it. And that is an attribute.

When you are employing, it's a really important function in interview, selection and recruitment to look at the attributes you want for that role. Do you want someone that's that consistent, come in, do the job, don't ask any questions, do the same thing for 25 years? Or do you want someone that's coming and asking, why am I doing it? And then perhaps why am I improving? And then perhaps someone that also says, how can I lead others to do the right function? So personal attributes or behaviours play a very important role in the absorption and then the regurgitation of training into our job out puts through their skillset.

Amanda:  Okay, that is a great example. They are from a massive organisation, and it does not matter whether you are massive or small, it will be the same regardless. We did touch on that stuff. I think back in episode two or three when we started to get into the, question of what job do you actually want to do and are you actually suited to it. Going back and doing those, I think we, we did put links around the different types of testing that you can do online to see whether you are actually suited.

Do you have the ability to self-organise?

Peter:  I think another attribute that needs to be raised here is being self-organised and being able to schedule your own day and your own activities. Perhaps when you are a novice you were not able to do that. At the advanced beginner level, they are expecting a level of self-direction or self-organisation here.

Amanda:  I think that will be very dependent on the job because obviously if you're a plant worker, you may be quite proficient in your job, an advanced beginner, but you can't pick and choose when you're going to start that production line.

I think from a lab perspective, yes. I had the flexibility at this level to go, I know what I have to achieve today. I get to choose what order I do that in as opposed to no, I do not really want to do that today. I actually want to go and do an inspection of a butcher shop rather than the sampling of, you know, a swimming pool or something like that.

Peter:  Amanda, I remember a time when you had some employees, or at least some casuals working with you in your business. How were you directing people's activities or time at that point? Were they at the advanced beginner or novice level and how did you manage that?

Amanda:  Well, I had an employee who was on an admin traineeship, so I would give her the work. I needed it done by a certain time because obviously I had clients. This was when I was doing a lot of nutrition labelling and she had to put the data in. For me to do that next phase, I needed her to do the first thing.

So, it was very much time-sensitive from that side of it. But when it came to filing, it was like, okay, I need these filed. You choose when you want to file them. If you want to do it at three o'clock, do it at three. If you want to do it tomorrow, do it tomorrow. Just do not let me walk into the office in a week's time and see a massive lot of files because you have not done the filing.

In that scenario you are always going to be interrupted by the phone ringing. In the early days it was very much obviously the novice, especially for the trainee. I was always watching and advising. We were in a very close space as well, so it wasn't like she had to go far to ask for the information. We were always talking.

When the trainee reached the advanced beginner level, I did not have to check as much. I would just do a fleeting check from that side. There was a lot more trust there. I trusted her to come in and do the work and I could actually advise from a distance. If I was out in the field, she could be in the office by herself. The level of supervision was a lot less than what it was in that first 12 months.

The daily check-in

Peter:  I can think when I was bringing new employees into one of the businesses, I was working in still in the food arena, but this was around certifying professionals that worked in that space. At the advanced beginner level, I would help them scope their work tasks and the type of outputs we're expecting throughout the day and then I would pretty much leave them to run their own space, in their own time and then check in on them in the afternoon. That seemed to work for me. Maybe it does not work for everybody.

Amanda:  No. Well, again, it just really depends on the food job that you are doing. I think if there is that time sensitivity, as it is in production, you don't get to choose that, but where you have got that flexibility, you do. Regardless, you still need that attribute, to be organised and even in production, be organised to show up on time when production is starting. You have to be organised to actually get yourself to work.

Peter:  Absolutely. These are important things as well. Not being told “get changed and you know, where's your left gumboot? Why you're still wearing your sand shoe instead of your gumboot?”

Amanda:  That wraps up this episode where we have started to look at the skills, attributes, knowledge and experience of the advanced beginner. In the next episode, we are going to go review where we expect you to be around the five-year mark.

If you have any questions regarding this episode or the advanced beginner level, please share your thoughts in the comments section below this post.

About Off the Menu

In the first season of Off the Menu, Amanda Evans-Lara and Peter Holtmann dive into career development for newbies and professionals working in the food industry. Listen in to learn about the skills, knowledge, personal attributes and work experience needed to map your food industry career path.

Off the Menu Podcast

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