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27 Feb 2021

Cathal O Donnell, Commercial Director of Brightwater is in conversation with Conor Bannon, Manager of Brightwater’s Engineering division.

COD: Conor, thanks for joining us. I thought it would be a good place to start to look at the areas that you recruit in, the different divisions, the different sectors, the market that you work in and maybe get an overview of what you do in the engineering team in Brightwater.

CB: Sure, Cathal, thanks for the opportunity. I’m the manager for Engineering, Supply Chain and Life Sciences here with Brightwater. I’ve been with Brightwater for five years. I would cover the manufacturing side of engineering which would include production, manufacturing and anything that goes around that; mechanical, electrical, maintenance, process, continuous improvement, automation and quality. I suppose, looking at the market, it’s been very consistent. A lot of my clients, throughout Covid, would have continued to hire and specific hires, business critical hires. The growth levels have been strong. Some companies would still have been in double digit growth when it comes to staff, so it’s been really good.  


COD: There is a lot of different areas that you look after there. Is there an area within engineering that’s been standing out or one that you specialise in or you would feel that you have a really good understanding of what’s out there in the market place at the moment?

CB: I would specialise in maintenance, continuous improvement and process. It’s something that I’ve found very easy to understand; goods in, products out the other end. For continuous improvement and driving efficiencies, having a background in economics means I’ve always enjoyed it, lean and lean efficiencies. Maintenance is just I suppose, the bread and butter. I grew up in a household where my father was an electrician so I kind of took to that too so I’ve really enjoyed it.


COD: I suppose with the impact of Covid last year, across all markets, how was the market last year across the manufacturing and production sector? Was it heavily impacted or how did things go there?

CB: When you look at the market overall, it’s so broad, I kind of split it into two sectors. Those in perishable goods, they were obviously the first really big casualty of Covid-19 with some of the big meat factories being heavily exposed and being highlighted in the news whereas pharma and the heavy goods industry have just continued. The heavy goods industry, construction was able to remain open so their pipeline of work would have been there consistently. As with the latest lockdown, it’s beginning to slow but having had a conversation with them (clients) they’re getting busy. Pharma again has been busy, there’s been lots of mergers and takeovers or restructures. It’s led to a lot of growth in certain areas, ranging from general operatives the whole way through to maintenance technicians all the way up to senior management in pharmaceutical. So it’s been very broad. The companies that I work with in perishable goods, they’ve all learned to adapt and they’re back up and running. With Brexit, which has had a huge impact and people don’t understand it. Again, those companies have to take on a greater workload burden if they’re part of a group or if their parent company is in the UK, they have to manufacture for the European Union. It’s creating a lot of opportunity, there’s a lot of companies that are forecasting more hires because of Brexit. Supply Chain again has been impacted by that too. I think and I hope that engineering and manufacturing is very much coming out of the Covid crisis and it’s on an upward curve for hires. Just within the last two months, the roles in and companies that are prepared to talk now have increased significantly.


COD:  One thing we’ve seen, probably across all industries now is the effect of things like the shutdown, not being able to travel the 5k or outside your county. How has that impacted manufacturing facilities when you’ve got large numbers of cross county people, particularly in the midlands working in that industry? Have the lockdown restrictions impacted heavily on manufacturing facilities?

CB: The 5k restriction wouldn’t impact in any way any of the industries I work with because most of them would be considered critical businesses, critical manufacturing, whether it’s food or something else. I do a little bit in the lift industry, they’re considered essential services as they could be in hospitals etc. That wouldn’t impact it.

 I suppose where there has been an impact is where you could have a production line that runs 24/7. It’s how you clean the machinery down whether that’s food or pharma, to make sure that people are working safely. Companies have come up with some ingenious ideas, whether that’s splitting a shift or a longer downtime. One example is a company that we work with in Dublin West where they do a staggered shift. They still work 24/7 but whereas once it may have been 2 x 12 hour shifts, they now work 8/8/8/8. The guys go in, the first team do a full 8 hour shift, the second team come in and clean down the machines for an hour, work their shift for 6 hours, then clean down for the next team to come in. The last shift work for 7 hours and then there’s an hour deep clean. Yes, there is a loss of hours but it’s continuous work so everyone is working safely. People have to show ingenuity. A lot of the engineers I work with in pharma and heavy goods industry are getting a really good work-life balance. They’re getting to work from home, they’re maybe doing 3 days in the office and 2 at home or 2 in the office and 3 at home. So they’re getting the continuity of a 5 day week spread out with the gap of the weekend in the middle. A lot of people are really taking to that idea, there hasn’t been a drop off in productivity. Companies are now investing in technologies and it’s probably changed a lot of industries for the better or mindsets for the better.

COD: Do you feel that concept of loss of productivity may have been a concern at the start? Did you find companies a little reluctant to look at some of those ingenious ideas or innovative ways of making things work? Did that come across?

CB: It did. No-one really knew, because of Covid running along the same time as Brexit, no-one really knew how Covid was going to impact or how Brexit was going to impact and how companies were going to restructure. There was that “Do we have to reduce people’s hours, we haven’t the same productivity” mentality.

One major confectionery company that we dealt with saw it as an opportunity to grow their business, to look at it and say “we know that other companies are going to struggle, it’s a perfect time to look at how we’re going to improve what we’re doing on the line, by adding more bodies, by spending a little more, by improving our products”. They’ve actually been quite successful in winning large- scale contracts. Where some of their competition have rowed back because of the lack of certainty, they’ve actually gone out and won business because they were prepared to spend an extra little bit. The best example is 2 maintenance techs (technicians) who have come from very different environments, all learning a new trade, a new skill but because of them, the site is actually at max, there is more efficiencies to scale, they can work longer. Because the machines are able to run longer, they’re able to bring in more general operatives, again a huge area that we’ve seen growth in.

Health & Safety, again another area that’s flourishing, because we have to show ingenuity around workplace practices. We have to look at who’s a necessity to be on site and who’s not a necessity to be onsite and it’s streamlined an awful lot of procedures. I’ve found that in particular, when it comes to the ingenuity side, the closer you’re meant to be to a machine, the more likely you’re going to be onsite, the further you’re meant to be away from a machine, the less likely you’re going to be onsite. If you’re closer to a laptop, particularly production planners, people like that, they don’t need to be onsite. They can manage the metrics once the metrics are reported correctly. There has been a huge balancing off and companies that have gone down the Lean journey, it’s proof in the pudding that if your production strategy and your manufacturing strategy is correct, then Lean will come through. We know from some of the pharma companies that we’re working with, that the Lean journey, the process that they’re on, has probably been sped up because of Covid.


CB: Do you feel that particularly over the last 18 months, some markets have been impacted heavily, a lot of people unfortunately have lost their jobs, has recruitment slowed down within the manufacturing facilities? Has it slowed down in certain areas? Has it grown in other areas? What was the recruitment process like throughout 2020?

CB: I would say very much in a steady state. While some companies have been impacted significantly, a lot of food manufacturing would have been reliant on areas, fresh food, veg, prep for restaurant, pubs, some of the alcohol businesses have had to look and rescale into different areas. For example, pubs aren’t open so there’s not a huge demand for kegged beer, stuff like that, there’s different types of bottles. They’re now going full tilt into cans and different products that are sold into off-licences. The same very much in confectionery, the footfall in and out of shops has dropped so some companies have actually retooled. The crisp market for example, it’s not the single packet of crisps they’re selling on the shelves, but most people are doing a large scale supermarket shop. Companies have had to retool, they’re changing machines that they’re now making a 12 pack of popcorn or a 6 pack of crisps instead of the single pack that you can buy on the counter. So for companies, there have been lots of opportunities presented. When it comes to employment in these areas, there has been a distinct change. They do need more bodies on site, you do need more production operatives, you do need more Health & Safety officers to make sure the rules are there and likewise, if you’re growing like some of the companies that we’re working with, you do need more maintenance technicians, you do need to look at how your workforce is working. You’ll get continuous improvement people, transformation people, there is growth. Even in the construction industry, while it has slowed down and stopped, hopefully it will get back up and running by the 5th March, there are companies who are indicating that they’ll need bodies. There is a shortage in certain areas. That’s the big fear. My big fear for 2021, when we get lift off, (hopefully on the 5th March) that there will be a shortage of candidates. It’s not, I suppose the time or the place to think you’ll get a bargain because there’s such a large pool of companies looking for a very small pool of engineers, of maintenance techs, qualified tradespeople and even going into facilities.

CB: That’s a really interesting point that you made there. I actually went to my local supermarket, trying to buy 1 packet of crisps and ended up with a bag of 6. A lot of people wouldn’t think about the internal transformation that a line would have to do to be able to cater for packaging that type of product. There’s a lot more things as a consumer outside the industry that you don’t really see. Do you see a lot of companies reacting to those changes? Are they on top of it and are they ready to go?

CB: Some of those changes have been forced because of people’s patterns and how they’re working. Work-life balance, if you think about it, we’re all working in different environments, some people are working with their kids at home, there are other demands. That change in cycle, even coming down to maintenance engineers who are working on the Luas or in CIE or places like that who are keeping our buses running or mechanics who are keeping the trains working, they’ve all been impacted on service. So companies have had to look at doing things differently.  I don’t think that we as a general public appreciate the job that a maintenance technician or an engineer would do. It’s not simply sit down and do your job. There are a lot of different problems that have to be solved because of Covid  to even do a simple task.


COD: That skillset you’re talking about, looking at manufacturing managers, production managers, continuous improvement specialists, process engineers, there is a lot of different people that have to adapt. As you say maybe the consumer doesn’t necessarily understand or take into account when you see something different on your supermarket shelves or you’re trying to buy something in your local pharmacy and it’s not available. There’s probably a lot more behind that than people don’t realise. Is there a lot more to the supply chain /production process that consumers don’t understand?

CB: We’re all very aware of the vaccinations and what’s happening with the vaccinations. We’re privy to some of that information and some of the calls we make and some of the people we’re talking to on a daily basis, and some of them more than once or twice a day, would be able to give us an insight into what’s actually happening in the manufacturing and supply chain sectors. The supply chain mechanism for the production of the vaccines and the production of pharmaceuticals, getting simple ingredients to meet demand is difficult. They’re coming from different regions, there’s red tape everywhere that has to be resolved. Demand and supply, as an economic student, there’s a big gap there and that’s impacting everything. Very simply, from making bleach all the way through to making the vaccines for Covid, there are huge problems. Again fingers crossed for companies like Pfizer and Astra Zeneca, that they can continue to get their supply, that they can meet their targets and the demand that’s there. It impacts even down to the simple things, we don’t understand the amount of ingredients that come into our country from elsewhere.


COD: Conor, coming out of 2020 which was a really interesting year for everyone, across every single market, not just in manufacturing, production, engineering or pharmaceutical in general, what are your thoughts on the outlook for the sector in 2021? Obviously we’ve had a lot of hurt, maybe through last year, some successes that are definitely worth documenting but what’s your view on 2021? What is the outlook like for the engineering/supply chain/sciences market for 2021?

CB: I look at the market and what we do, if we look at the Irish economy, it’s like a ferry. Manufacturing would be the engine of the ferry and it’s always the last to turn. When you’re looking at the top of the ship and the leadership roles, executive roles, IT has been busy, finance, accounting etc are very busy. It’s beginning to pick up again. We’re very much at the point now where the boat has swung, it’s done its 180” and it’s ready to turn. I do think it’s going to be busy. I do think that good candidates are going to be extremely difficult to find. Covid in the sense that companies have looked after their employees will make it very difficult, particularly in the Irish psyche where if a company has been good to you, people will remain loyal. It’s about how when you go to market to look for someone, how you entice that person. We’ve seen this, way back in the recession of 2009, the first recession that I lived through properly and that I’ve a working memory of, it was the sense of loyalty to companies that looked after their people, that’s something that we’re going to have to deal with as recruiters. We have to advise our clients the best way forward on that, everyone has budgets.

Again, it’s skills shortages. How do we get people to choose a career as an engineer, choose a career in quality, choose a career in science, look at supply chain & logistics, look at a trade. Sometimes, I have worked with EGA and UCD and I would look at the calibre of the students in the universities. They’re great, don’t get me wrong but I’m looking at the numbers when I graduated in 2002 in engineering to now. There’s a huge drop off. People may be looking at other areas where it might not be as mathematical or it’s deemed to be more fun than being an engineer. The only thing I can say to that is that engineering is a career that is a platform into absolutely anything. You learn so many different disciplines, and it’s an outstanding career. Cut from 19.48 to 20.09 


COD: One of the things to make note of and that I’ve been thinking of as well, is that a lot of companies, engineering companies and manufacturing facilities have everything in place now. All of 2020 was putting processes and strategies in place to protect staff and employees from Covid but give them the facilities to be able to work onsite as well. You probably think that companies are ready to go with that type of stuff. We’re 9/10/11 months into this so it’s not like we were in March 2020. A lot of companies spent last year preparing for now. I think we all know that Covid is here for a while yet and it’s all about being best placed and being able to cover your employees. How are manufacturing and engineering companies coping with on-boarding new staff?

CB: 100% and when you’re talking about covering your employees, from new starters to CEOs to seasoned veterans of companies, some manufacturing companies that we’ve worked with are ingenious in how they’re doing their inductions. Some companies have really struggled in this space. For example, I placed a candidate in June last year. He was really worried about doing a virtual induction. HR had never done a virtual induction. He hasn’t returned to site and I keep in touch with him like we all do to see how he was getting on (hopefully things are going well)  and I really feared for him because they’d never done a virtual induction and he was terrified. Literally they’ve come up with an absolutely amazing plan. He hasn’t met anyone on his team physically. But a very simple introduction, they did the system side of things, there was the expectation with the manager. There are 7 guys on his team and basically what they did was a 15 minute chat Monday to Thursday with each person on his team for the first three weeks and it wasn’t about work.

COD: And that’s so important as well. On-boarding people is a whole section in itself and making people feel comfortable with it. The situation you just described there, I’m sure it’s not uncommon. I’m sure the majority of people who started with companies now are probably doing something similar. From a client’s or employer’s perspective, it’s about making sure that you have those processes and procedures in place because candidates will make opinions on those type of things and they will welcome and appreciate the involvement that those clients take when they’re onboarding new people. It’s interesting that you can do that in manufacturing as well as doing it in an accounting job or an IT job, it’s a process really right?

CB: Yes, 100% I always think that the way the recruitment cycle works in manufacturing is that you’re taking your ingredient and at the far end of the process is your product. Again, it’s the same thing. They’ve just looked at the ingredient which is the candidate coming in and how they can get that ingredient through the process and the ingredient is his or her product at the very end. They seem to be getting it very right.


COD: Just in regard to how things are going to go for the next year. Are there any specific areas that you can see growth in, either job specific or industry specific for 2021? What are your growth area predictions for 2021?

CB: Pharma is obviously going to continue to be very busy. I think automation is something that is going to flourish. I can see a huge skills shortage in anything electrical. There would always be peaks and troughs where you’d have a trough in mechanical and a lot of electrical graduates coming out of college or vice versa. Electrical graduates at the moment are very hard to find whether that’s construction or pharmaceutical. To go into construction or go into pharmaceutical or going into manufacturing, they’re just not there. The same I would say would also be process engineers, someone who’s going to help the guys when there are changes required, who can go in and look at metrics. Reliability again, because machines are going to run, people are not going to work the way we used to work, we’re going into a more automated environment. We’re also looking at something that I haven’t really seen in my five years recruiting in engineering with Brightwater, I’m seeing an awful lot of demand in utilities, our footprint and what our waste- water is going to be like, what our expenditure is like on electricity and how we can manage that. It’s a huge growth area for recruitment. Environmental again, the impact of it, we’re looking at a changing world in which we live in and environmental engineers are going to have a huge say in what we’re going. Health and Safety, whether that’s manufacturing, construction, the whole way into facilities, there is huge demand there. I do think there are shortages in trades, in qualified tradespeople, in people who are prepared to look at trades in the manufacturing area. Most people think of construction when I say electrician or I say fitter, they think of someone who is working on a building site or who is doing an installation job. But there are really good jobs for people who are qualified, toolmakers, C&C qualified, electricians, fitters who are going to go in. A lot of the guys who have gone into manufacturing, if you look at pre- 2009, the worst recession in about 40 years, they’ve all done really well. Some of those companies have supported them getting a degree. A lot of them have gone on and are now engineering managers, they’re heads of engineering, they’re directors because they’ve come up through, they understand how things work eg. how the GO’s (general operatives)work on the line all the way up into how the maintenance engineers fix them. They’re all doing really well and I would never ignore the trade route or an engineering route. It’s very much a step by step process. You have to understand the whole process of the business for it to work.


COD: Would you recommend that engineers to continuously improving, and add onto the skillsets that they have?. Do you feel that a degree in 20 years’ time will have as much value as it does now or would you recommend adding on and getting involved in other aspects of modern engineering, reliability, these types of things?

CB: I’d always advise, that if you’re not trying to learn or if you’re not trying to pick up a new skill, that the world is going to pass you by in engineering. We can talk about the Internet of Things, we can talk about reliability, automation, these are all the hottest topics. It’s great for people to write code or stick together a PC but where does the PC come from? It’s built in a factory, it’s the engineer that’s looking at the machinery that’s making the microchips. Engineering, we’ve had this conversation before, it’s probably one of the oldest professions. Those people who fix things have always been there, who invent things. I’m not knocking anyone in IT or anything like that but there are so many strings. I see people who have engineering degrees on their CVs and they’re in completely different roles, like going into bio-pharma, you’re a mechanical engineer, you’re an aeronautical engineer and all of a sudden you’re working in a pharma company and you’re working as their utilities person. It’s just  a huge springboard and if you’re prepared to do the work, you can go anywhere with it. You’re not just a round peg in a round hole sometimes.

COD: Yes and I always say, the wheel wasn’t invented by someone in IT, that’s where engineering comes from. 

CB: I think that when it comes to a career, engineering is difficult. It’s  a difficult qualification to get, it’s four years in college. A lot of people would be afraid of the maths side but from talking to people who have done the degree or even gone onto maintenance, the platform is there to do whatever you like. We can talk about the construction industry, people who have travelled the world, we can talk about bridge engineers. A friend of mine is in New Zealand, another one went from the midlands as a civil engineer to Australia, Scotland, back to Ireland and is now in Singapore. The world is your oyster, the market in Ireland is extremely strong. You’re not just looking at one path. There are companies that you may not have heard of, that are doing work here in Ireland, eg, there’s a R&D hub that we’ve worked with, they’re taking technology and miniaturising it but it’s an engineering job. They’re taking things and shrinking it, they’re making things smaller, they’re making it so that our lives are more efficient as a consumer. People don’t know that that kind of work is going on in Ireland. There’s just plenty of opportunities everywhere even if you want to go and work on an oil rig.


COD: So Conor, if you were coming out of secondary school or if you knew someone coming out of secondary school or parents with kids of that age, would you recommend engineering as a career? What would you say to these people? Would you recommend the trade route? What does it offer as a career for young people?  Would you recommend a career in engineering to young school leavers now?

CB: I have 2 young boys of my own and if you ask me what profession I’d like them to get into, I’d steer them towards engineering. It is a profession that is a difficult road to get there. I understand that the four years in university is extremely difficult but once you have your qualification as an engineer, the world is your oyster, there’s so much to get into. What I always find, going back to  when I was in college, you did your under graduate and then you specialised again. The trades route is equally as important though, not everyone is cut out for college at the time so the trades route is fantastic as well.

Again it gives you a huge springboard into absolutely anything. It depends on what you want to do. When I look at maintenance and the type of roles we work in, it’s not the nicest type of work but some of the places and clients we work with, treat their maintenance people and their tradespeople as good if not better than some of their engineers. Bringing it back to engineering, when you look at the opportunities that are there, the diversity of the roles, you can work in R&D roles, you can work in quality, you can step away from it altogether and go down the route of operations and sales and be a technical advisor, the world is your oyster.