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02 Mar 2021

Cathal O Donnell, Commercial Director of Brightwater’s Engineering, Supply Chain & Life Sciences Division is in conversation with Nigel O’Leary, Assistant Manager of our Life Sciences division in Cork.

COD: I thought this is a good time to have a catch up on what you’re doing, your markets, where you recruit, the types of roles you recruit and just to see how things are going really. Could you give us an overview of what you focus on and where you recruit for?

NOL: I run the Life Sciences desk here based from our (Brightwater’s ) Cork office so I would recruit for life science companies across Munster & Connacht. That would be all life sciences, pharmaceuticals, bio-technology, medical devices and laboratory roles as well, so anything that happens on any of those types of sites, so everything from manufacturing to process engineering, quality assurance, QC, maintenance facilities, utilities, regulatory affairs, anything like that would all come through my desk. I get to recruit for a lot of very exciting roles. I would cover all the main population centres in those regions, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Sligo and up into Mayo as well. So we have quite a large breadth of work here.

COD: It sounds like you look after a lot of roles so you’re probably very busy on most occasions.

NOL: Yes, very busy.

COD: Last year was very interesting for all of us, across all industries. How did you find the pandemic affected last year or how was last year in general for the work that you do?

NOL: Yes, last year (2020). I’m lucky in that the life sciences industry has been relatively robust throughout this pandemic. There was an initial slow down where companies had to re-adapt and maybe reenvisage their recruiting plans for the year. The quantity of roles remained fairly constant throughout the year, we were constantly getting roles in but the types of roles maybe changed a little bit over the course of the year. We were kept busy. The likes of life science companies, because of the really critical markets that they serve, didn’t really have the opportunity to slow down.  A lot of them even had to ramp up operations to maintain supplies to the market.  

COD: Did you find things like the infamous lockdowns, how did they impact the market that you were working in? How did lockdown affect the life sciences sector?

NOL: There would have been an impact, particularly for a lot of the manufacturing sites. They had to go through a very quick and large programme of adapting to the new rules and regulations. What a lot of the life sciences companies did was a risk assessment on their own staff and anyone who didn’t have to be onsite, who wasn’t really critical to manufacturing or operations was then moved to a work from home situation very quickly. People like Quality Assurance professionals started to do their work from home rather than being on site interacting directly with the production floor. Whereas the operators  and the maintenance facilities people would have remained onsite but a lot of the companies would have tried to limit the amount of personnel onsite so they could maximise things like social distancing and minimise the prospect for transmission among the workers in the plant.

COD: How was that received?  A lot of people who work on manufacturing sites would have been going in every day. What was the sentiment, the idea of working from home? How did companies facilitate that process? Was it seamless?

NOL: I think it would have varied from site to site. A lot of them would have had very robust IT infrastructures in place. All of their staff would have had their own laptops so moving them to remote working from a logistical perspective seemed to be relatively easy. It was more the Human Resources side of things that a lot of companies had to deal with, dealing with people who were possibly working in an environment that wasn’t perfectly conducive to your regular day to day work and making sure they could maintain the inter-company communication between teams and so on so that everyone could maintain that connection to the company.

COD: That’s an interesting point as well, you mentioned people historically having a habit or a schedule. We all had it and when that changes, it can be difficult to adapt to that and from an candidate’s or employer’s perspective that you’re talking to, did you think they embraced that idea? Was it a positive change for them? How did they feel about it?

NOLI think for most of the candidates I’ve spoken to, the working from home aspect has been a positive change in their working lives. I think a lot of them would still miss the opportunity to be onsite and interact directly with their colleagues, but it has been embraced by the majority of people who have been moved offsite.

COD: Do you think that this will revert back to what we used to do within manufacturing facilities or what’s your view on it? What’s going to happen next?

NOL: I think that the most likely outcome will be that at most it will return to a blended option so once the vaccination rollout is complete and case levels drop down to lower levels and we come out of our level 5 lockdowns, I think most companies will maintain work from home as a flexible option. They’ll give people the option to come into the office 3 to 4 days a week and then work from home on the balance if they choose to do so.

COD: Did you find, from a recruitment perspective that manufacturing facilities in pharmaceutical, life sciences and med devices, did they slow their recruitment processes down, did their processes get longer? Was it different than from a normal year? How were recruitment processes affected across manufacturing in life sciences?

NOL: Yes, for a majority of sites, manufacturing did have to continue as planned, they still had their outputs to meet. I think the biggest changes happened in a number of the medical device companies in the mid-west and the Galway region who pivoted very quickly into new things such as supplying ventilators. They would have ramped up their production lines very quickly and the support companies feeding components and services into those companies also ramped up to meet that increased demand. You would have had quite a number of companies pivoting from one kind of product to maybe producing something that would have fed into the medical device or the pharma arena to support various different Covid related products. We had one client who pivoted very quickly into the manufacturing of alcohol gels and hand sanitisers and they’ve built quite a successful brand and that was a very fast pivot for them.

COD: So you would have found that those type of companies would have still been recruiting?

NOL: They were still recruiting. In a lot of cases, they would have had to ramp up recruiting to deal with increased demand for their products.

COD: It’s interesting as there have been companies all over the country that have had to innovate and that’s one of the things that the manufacturing sector has always been really good at in Ireland is actually innovating. I know from my perspective and the companies that I’ve worked with, that I’ve been very proud of the way Irish companies have adapted so quickly as well. Things like remote working or health & safety on site, it’s been positive from that perspective as well.

NOL: Yes, I would agree with that.

COD: So at the moment, Nigel, 2021 is looking like a little different than what we hoped for or expected so far, albeit, how has the market been so far? What is the forecast for the life sciences market in 2021?

NOL: Certainly in the life sciences market, we’re lucky in that it’s one of the most robust recruitment areas to be in. For the last six weeks, since the start of 2021, it’s been very positive. We’ve seen a major uptake in the amount of roles that our clients are sending to us to get support in their recruitment efforts. We’ve a lot of open roles and in a lot of different areas. A lot of them are tied into new product introductions and tech transfers and so on that are aligned to the ways that companies are pivoting their production processes. Certainly, the start of this year has been much more positive. I think the best thing from our perspective is that a lot of the life sciences companies have “baked in” the Covid related procedures so remote interviewing, remote onboarding, all of that is just part and parcel of the recruitment process. In a lot of cases, it has increased the speed to hire because you’re not waiting for candidates to take a day off next week, they can do a Zoom interview with a day’s notice. So it has actually speeded up a lot of the processes in that way.

COD: That point is interesting because I’ve found that for someone to go offsite, to go to an interview, to come back onsite, that could be a three hour process or a half day off. So hopefully when things do go back to normal, employers won’t forget about things like Teams for interviews because it is a really good way to get to know somebody face to face, certainly for a 1st stage interview process.

COD: I’d be keen to know, from the people that you’re speaking with, what’s the general sentiment? Is there positivity in that market at the moment, is there a little bit of apprehension still? I know we are waiting for things like vaccines but what’s the sentiment you’re finding from speaking to people? What is market sentiment like in life sciences now?

NOL: I think the sentiment is reasonably positive. We’ve all become accustomed to the restrictions and it’s moved into the background slightly for people. Particularly on the candidate side, people who were maybe on the fence about making a move in the depths of the pandemic, in the last two quarters of last year (2020), because of the way we’ve adapted and processes have accommodated the changes required, they’re now much more comfortable in making that move and bringing themselves back onto the market and looking for the next step in their career.

COD: From your desk as well, where are you seeing shortages? Are you seeing growth in a certain discipline you recruit for or have you seen companies increase demand in a certain sector that you recruit for?

NOL: Yes, certainly in the last number of weeks, there has definitely been a large demand for manufacturing engineers and process engineers. Again, this has been primarily driven by the introduction of new manufacturing lines in various different companies. People with those skills in engineering, mechanical engineering, process or chemical engineering, people who can work on the process improvement on existing lines or work on the capital and installation requirements of new equipment or new production lines, they’re very much in demand at the moment. Alongside that, the quality and validation personnel that would go hand in hand with those type of projects (are also in demand).

COD:  If we take last year, 2020, is it much different from last year or has that demand increased significantly or was that a constant stream of growth?

NOL: There is always a demand for those engineering skills but from the start of 2021, there has been an increased demand. From an engineering perspective, those skills are always going to be in demand from the manufacturing sector. For the moment, there’s a bit of a premium on them because there are so many companies that are making so many engineering project decisions at the moment so they need that support. There is always a demand for those skills.

COD: In your opinion, is now a good time to look for a job? Do you think it’s a positive market to look at?

NOL: Yes, particularly now with the projected vaccination timelines, and the removal of restrictions towards the middle of this year, I’m finding that candidates are coming to the market very positive about making that move without having that apprehension that they would have had last year about the security of move when they do make them.

COD: From an engineering, from a science, from a STEM perspective, you obviously work heavily in this market and you can see growth patterns. You get a lot of information from companies and a lot of individuals. From a career perspective, if you were coming out of secondary school and thinking of going into something engineering related or science related or IT related, any of the STEM functions, is it something you would recommend? Can you see it as a positive career going forward?

NOL: Yes, without a doubt. As I said, particularly within life sciences, the range of engineering careers that there are, is huge. If you’re coming from a mechanical engineering or a process engineering or a chemical engineering background, there are any number of roles and career paths that you can get into in STEM, whether it’s in medical devices or the traditional pharma or now bio pharma and the booming bio tech sector. You can go in as an engineer in a facilities, utilities or engineering position and you can chart a career that could bring you to the very top of the industry.

COD: You mentioned all those different disciplines but some people may feel that the idea of getting involved in engineering might be difficult or might be challenging. Is there a career path or an avenue for somebody coming out of university at the moment for opportunities in Ireland?

NOL: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the pharmaceutical and medical device companies will do graduate programmes where you will be seconded for a number of months to different parts of the business. You would get to work in operations, engineering section, quality, you might get to work in another associated part of the business. You would get that wide-ranging exposure to all the different parts of the business, to all the different potential areas for working on a manufacturing site. It gives a great insight into where you might want to bring your career from a long-term perspective.

COD: Do you think that this particular career, be it science or engineering, does that limit you to a particular jurisdiction or can you bring it overseas? What is the biggest benefit about of being an engineer or working in science, med devices or pharma?

NOL: Yes, as you said, it’s a great point. It’s a global career choice. You can start here in Ireland, you can bring it to Europe, you can bring it to the US, you can bring it to the Far East. All of the companies are looking for those skills. Your career isn’t limited to Ireland, you can take yourself global with these career choices.

COD: Hopefully when we can go global again!