Upskilling the food sector: from innovation to global mobility
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Upskilling the food sector: from innovation to global mobility

28 Oct 2021

Paula Kirwan, General Manager - Australia (East) at Brunel Australasia, addresses how innovation in the food sector is changing the game for the workforce of the future.

Sponsored by Brunel Sponsored by Visit Company
Upskilling the food sector: from innovation to global mobility

What is your role in the company and what markets does your business cover?

Paula Kirwan: I’m general manager for the east coast of Australia and New Zealand. We recruit roles across the full lifecycle of major infrastructure projects, which, historically have been in oil and gas. We’ve also diversified into mining infrastructure and renewables on a global basis, and more recently we have added life sciences as a global vertical too.

Why is Brunel expanding into life sciences – and the food sector specifically – in Australia and further afield?

Paula Kirwan: Brunel have been operating within life sciences for over 15 years but a couple of years ago we decided to expand our operations and launched their life sciences division globally. We have a global reach and focus across Pharma, Food, Medical Devices, Animal Health and Advanced Facilities. We saw it as an opportunity to diversify our business into a sector that requires a deep understanding of the market and problem-solving approach to our clients.  Traditionally we have been an oil and gas-focused business, but any smart business should look to diversify. We considered where we wanted to be in 10-, 20- and 30-years’ time and what industry would benefit from our approach. Life sciences really came to the forefront, we knew it would be a good fit for us. We recruit highly technical, specialists, – mainly engineers – our business is set up to source for key skill shortages and deliver processes that enable the movement of skills shortages across the globe. Life sciences demands that specialist expertise, so we have built a team of specialists positioned across our network to support our Lifesciences clients. In North America we have a strong footprint in Pharma and medical devices but here in Australia our focus is within the Food Industry and Agri / Animal Health

What other strengths do you bring to bear for your clients?

Paula Kirwan: A big part of our service is in global mobility. We have a whole division within Brunel that supports and facilitates the movement of people with critical skillsets. We know how to mobilise engineers across the world, so we’re using that knowledge to adapt and apply to the life sciences sector, which is also a truly global industry that relies on the import and export of Specialists. That’s where we felt we could add value where maybe other more embryonic recruitment organisations don’t have the depth of knowledge. We’ve got a deep expertise to support moving people across the world – and now we can do that for life sciences too.

How are you able to transfer longstanding experience from other sectors into life sciences?

Paula Kirwan: Traditionally, recruiters are trained to fill vacancies for their clients. That is not the Brunel model. We were initiated as a business by our original founder Jan Brand, an engineer, to mobilise teams across Europe on key oil and gas projects. It was about Engineers supporting each other and solving recruitment gaps within a specific industry. We’re taking a similar approach with life sciences. Our leaders are from the industry – our recruiters have industry experience and as we expand, we will bring in staff who have degrees in biomedical science, agricultural science, animal health, food science etc. We are working with our clients to support them and the growth of the industry and understand their pain points in recruitment.

How is Brunel well-placed to answer the significant challenges the food sector is facing at the moment?

Paula Kirwan: That starts with the passion we have for the United Nations Sustainability Development Goals. It’s part of our DNA. The challenge of climate change is a significant factor in the need to introduce new technologies into the primary production of food. Farmers here in Australia have faced drought, climate variability, biosecurity and global competition – all of which are increasing the cost of production. Fertiliser prices have soared in the last 6 months (as it is used in the mining industry) which places further pressures on our farmers. The price of energy, the supply of water, the food supply chain, major fires, Covid-19 – all these factors are being felt dramatically within the Agri business of Australia and we need to come together to support these challenges. Australian agribusiness is recognised as a leader in the field, similar to the tech business of  Silicon Valley. Australia is investing in technologies to support the industry. Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, has pledged $150 million-worth of funding to solve these problems, all based on utilising digital and technology advancement in the grassroots of agriculture.

What is the big picture in terms of the recruitment market in the food sector?

Paula Kirwan: We’ve had a combination of factors that have compounded the need for us to address this perfect storm of challenges quickly and efficiently. The agricultural business relies on travellers for picking season -we haven’t had backpackers for two years because of the pandemic. The ongoing drought, the fires, it means we must take a holistic view on supporting the industry – it will not be a quick fix approach. CSIRO and ongoing government and industry support will tackle the technological research and advancement. Businesses like Brunel will work with them to source and support the labour skills shortages as they evolve. Brunel can find the right talent for these situations.

How is food sector innovation shaping the workforce of the future?

Paula Kirwan: There has been significant advancement in the food innovation field. 3D food printing, high-pressure processing, insect-based protein, and lab-grown meat are all emerging technologies that will affect not only our behaviours but also the skills in demand within the sector. The production and demand for high-protein foods is a massive shift to the market. Ten years ago, I worked with an Australian poultry producer that predicted the consumption of chicken would continue to quadruple year-on-year. They had to plan how they were going to deliver on that supply chain. The introduction of Automated Grading Systems (like AQS) meant that they have automated the grading and sorting of produce. They can manage more than 12000 chickens per hour which clearly reduces the need for certain skill sets within the industry. This technology can be applied to many other production facilities too. Blockchain too could revolutionise the agri-food supply chain -as its application could improve food traceability. Food giants like Nestle are working with IBM to apply blockchains to their food supply chains.

Why will these disruptive trends and challenges determine the food specialists of tomorrow?

Paula Kirwan: There are going to be new skillsets required and perhaps specialists that haven’t worked in the food industry before. The food that we eat is controlled by 10 mega-companies globally, and they all have grassroots in food production. Some of the food sector innovation I mentioned earlier will be looking to steal skills from other industries, such as the motor industry.

Advanced machine vision systems in horticulture and meat production are a technology that has morphed from more traditional manufacturing industries. Australia is well-positioned to be a leader in the field because we have a massive agricultural industry and appetite to support.  Industry and government are very interested in investing to become the leaders of Agri-tech.

Why is this a market burgeoning with opportunity?

Paula Kirwan: It excites us because Australia can be leaders in this sector. Brunel has always partnered with clients who a leading the way in their field. We are an entrepreneurial business and a problem solver for our clients. We’re not a traditional recruiter that says, “What do you want, we will assist you.?” Instead, we say, “What is your problem, how can we fix it together?” We partner with our clients and invest in the research and development phase of a project. Because we’re very used to taking a project ‘from go to whoa’, it feels as though, with the food sector, we’re in the beginnings of a project where we can support our clients through the whole project lifecycle – which is nothing less than the development of sustainable agriculture.

Further details:

For more information, please visit brunel.com.au

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