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How Grey Innovation is helping all of us to breathe easier during COVID-19

When the coronavirus pandemic hit our shores, federal and state governments in Australia were being bombarded with offers of help from industry, all well-meaning. Everyone from significant corporate entities to the enthusiastic amateur who could turn their business to assist the health crisis response, which has seen everything from distilleries producing hand sanitiser to community groups sewing face masks.

Dr Peter Meikle, a mechanical engineer and CEO of Grey Innovation, coordinates a group of Australian businesses that has quickly formed under his organisation’s leadership to produce ventilators in record time. “We approached the ventilator problem informed by our panel of clinicians and knew collaboration would be the key to success,” Dr Meikle says. “Our business model is based on the strategic commercialisation of technologies in areas including environmental, homeland security and medical devices. This is familiar territory for us, but not in such a compressed time frame.”

The consortium, seeded with $500,000 from the Victorian Government, matching funds from the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre, and subsequently founded to the tune of $31.1 million from the Australian Federal Government, includes businesses such as Bosch, ANCA, Braemac, Hosico, Marand, Knee 360 and many more. Branded as NOTUS Vivere (Notus, after the Greek God of Southern Wind and vivere, meaning ‘to live’), its goal is to produce up to 4000 emergency invasive ventilators, but the real challenge for the consortium is to produce this life-saving device in a compressed timeframe.

Meikle is keen to highlight that engineering has been central to the project’s success. “The importance of adhering to process is something engineers naturally recognise. When you can prove you are doing things that are meaningful and measurable, it means you cut through when you’re making an approach to government, or anybody else,” he says.

Grey Innovation engaged Bill Haggerty from Slade Group to recruit key personnel to resource the federally and Victorian State Government supported NOTUS project. Naomi Buckland, Human Resources, Grey Innovation, recognised the demanding nature of this project meant hiring key staff who would be required to commence work immediately. She says, “Bill was able to quickly translate our resourcing requirements into candidates who had the skills and fit into our culture. He was able to source three exceptional candidates who presented for an interview and were immediately engaged by Grey Innovation.” 

As the COVID-19 lockdown started, Louisa de Vries found herself looking for new career opportunities. When she contacted Bill Haggerty from Slade, he mentioned a role at Grey Innovation on the Emergency Invasive Ventilator Program, which matched her previous experience. Now the Engineering Supply Manager at Grey Innovation, de Vries says she is very much enjoying working for a forward thinking and agile company – one that has used this project to reinvigorate our very capable local manufacturing industry. “I feel very fortunate to be involved in this project, which is a great opportunity to be part of a team delivering a product that is particularly essential at this time.”

Grey Innovation, with the support of its consortium partners, has been able to scale up manufacturing and build a new product within weeks of project launch. That the challenges of tight timing and technical complexity have been met is a credit to the highly talented team, observes Matthew Malatt, Manager Supply Chain Engineering. “It has demonstrated the strong industrial skills that remain in Australia,” he says.  “Beyond meeting the immediate need for ventilators, it is widely anticipated that this project will create impetus for the rejuvenation of a local manufacturing industry. It is a privilege to be part of the team working on the NOTUS Vivere emergency ventilator project, to deliver this life saving technology in support of Australia’s fight against COVID-19.”

What examples of innovation in Australian industry have you seen in the current times?

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There’s an Engineering skills shortage. Here’s one way to solve it.

It might not be news to some, but the current shortage in engineering skills is widening. While there have been many reports on this topic, I haven’t seen one that provides an adequate solution to the ever growing problem.

So what’s the answer, introduce more science and mathematics learning at an early stage? This might be easier said than done, as we are also facing a huge shortage of specialist maths and science teachers. Independent sources attribute a range of factors, including the failure to attract new teachers (particularly men) to the profession, imminent retirements and poor retention rates.

Whether it’s teachers or engineers, recruiting highly skilled migrants in Australia is costly.

One option that has worked for me is re-employing retired engineers into positions where they can add significant value.

Recently I organised a successful meeting for a candidate who had left the workforce with a company that had a short to medium-term contract opportunity.

The mutual benefits were clear: the company hired a highly qualified candidate (an engineer with over 40 years of experience in the Civil/Structural Engineering field) at short notice who could resolve their issues within the timeframe; the candidate enjoyed the flexibility of working on a stimulating project without a long-term commitment.

Employing professionals returning to the workforce has the following benefits for your organisation:

  • Fill short-term roles with an experienced candidate quickly
  • Retirees are more likely to consider a short-term opportunity than a candidate who is ultimately seeking permanent full-time work
  • Older employees can pass on valuable sector knowledge and transfer sought after skills to less experienced employees
  • 40 years + in the workforce brings with it well-established industry networks, and can provide introductions and mentoring opportunities for future leaders
  • Depending on skillsets and recent technical knowledge, minimal training or upskilling is typically required

Returning to the workforce also has benefits for retired and semi-retired candidates:

  • Feeling valued through their work by continuing to contribute to innovation, benefit society, and be involved in the business or the broader community Keeping your mind active, which could be beneficial to longevity[1]
  • Financial benefit

Overall, hiring older professionals in any field helps break down the stigma of ageism and reminds people that age should not be a barrier to work performance. In areas such as engineering, where chronic skills shortages have been identified, it makes perfect sense to reemploy when hiring for project-based roles and short to medium-term opportunities in particular. I’d like to see more employers jump on board and give it a go.

Have you employed a retired professional or do you know someone who has recently returned to the workforce after retirement? What was the experience like for both parties?

 

[1] There have been a number of studies to support this. In 2010 paper by economist Susann Rohwedder of RAND and Robert Willis of the University of Michigan (both were at Age Boom Academy). Looking at data from the U.S., England and 11 European countries, they concluded that retirement had a significant negative impact on the cognitive ability of people in their early 60s. They speculate that retirement can lead to a less stimulating daily environment. The researchers also wonder if people nearing retirement are less mentally engaged in their jobs (source Chris Farrell, Next Avenue Contributor).

 

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