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Interview

Mitchell Buswell – Regional Manager, Brunel Australasia, Australia

Brunel’s Mitchell Buswell describes changing labor demands in the oil and gas industry, the key factors to remaining the recruitment and HR partner of choice, the importance of Australasia for Brunel, and the company’s proactive approach to prospect future staffing needs as Australia’s major projects become operational.

Especially at the peak of its construction boom, Australia had a substantial impact in advancing Brunel’s global growth agenda. Does the country still maintain that same level of strategic value today?

It does. Over the last four or five years, not only have we generated a significant volume of business directly in Australia, we’ve also acted as a funnel for all of Asia given that a lot of the assets in Australia have actually been designed or built outside of the country. Brunel through its intelligence gathered here in Australia, as well as its regional network, has been able to benefit throughout the whole lifecycle of a project. That’s something strategically Brunel has been focused on. We provide labor wherever the project goes, and whether that’s in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, or Australia, we offer a complete service to the client. Essentially, we want to minimize the number of interfaces they have, which also helps streamline our own internal processes and procedures. Globally, the organization has placed strong emphasis on acting as “one Brunel.” We’re not concerned with what revenue specifically gets recorded where, as long as we’re able to provide a solution for our client and meet their demands.

As the bulk of the nation’s LNG projects reach completion, Australia will be one step closer in becoming the leading producer of LNG. In your opinion, how much of a role did Brunel serve in enabling this ambition from a human resources standpoint?

We’ve obviously had some really busy years recently. We’ve invested a significant amount in training and competency assessment and made an active decision at the start four or five years ago with our clients to bring younger people into the trades and craft industry. Bringing the average age down also meant introducing new faces into the industry, and that’s proven quite successful – they’re young, eager, and willing to prove themselves. As such, a lot of people have been given an opportunity that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Then from the technical or engineering aspect, we’ve invested substantially in training. We have a training association in accordance with our clients where we have sponsored 20 apprentices, five of which have now been officially signed off as trades persons, with several more approaching the end of their apprenticeships. Overall, I believe that Brunel has had a significant impact in bringing new talent into the industry to help fuel the construction boom and, ultimately, sustain the future pipeline of workers.

One of your predecessors, Arno Bracco, was telling us how LNG technology had actually been predominantly hosted in Europe and Japan before this whole construction era. Is that still the case?

Having so many projects overlapping, Australia has had to borrow skills from around the world. However, I’d be comfortable to say that we have more technically competent Australians in the industry now. And we’ve already seen Australians starting to export those competencies elsewhere in the world.

The industry landscape has altered significantly as a result of diminishing commodity prices and an imminent sector-wide shift into production. What will be the downstream impact on recruitment services from your perspective?

We’ve got some highly skilled trades and craft labor, but the construction side of things is inevitably starting to slow down. As such, we’ll be focusing our efforts on redeploying those resources into other areas. At the moment, we are feeling a shift from construction and commissioning to operations and maintenance projects in Western Australia. So, we are looking to assist and build our capability up in shutdowns, be it in mining or oil and gas. We are preparing ourselves for the next phase by talking with our clients to see how we can assist.

Like everyone else, our margins have been squeezed with the decline in commodity prices. For us, that has actually had a double impact in terms of margins and day rates. So, we’ve had to look at becoming more efficient, and we’ve put some strategies in place. We believe that even if our margins are being impacted, we at no level wanted to impact the service delivery for our clients. I personally believe that if we’re able to maintain our standards in quality and customer service, then that investment will eventually pay off – especially when it comes to placement volumes, referrals, and a better reputation among our contractor base.

So for Brunel what does quality service delivery mean?

It really just comes down to taking a proactive approach in anticipating the needs of our clients. In many cases, it’s identifying and solving problems that clients didn’t even know they had. If they don’t understand the problem we’ve fixed, then we’ve actually done a good job. And that’s where we fit in. They’re paying us for a service, and the scope of that service obviously covers recruitment and engagement, but also making sure our clients avoid any headaches. For example, we take a huge burden off our clients by offering contractor care and employee assessment programs for fly-in/fly-out workers, which typically consume substantial time and resources for clients to manage by themselves.

With that same proactive mindset, what are the challenges of tomorrow that you think companies will face?

A number of our clients in Australia will most likely leave the country. In the past six years, many of them have already made the most out of the work available, and in terms of forward projection, will likely look to other markets for new sources of value creation and growth. They will start redeploying their resources to other locations. But, Brunel has been and always will be committed to Australia. A big part of our global network is in and around the Asia Pacific – particularly Australia.

Has the widespread emphasis on cost-efficiency and optimization changed the inherent qualities that companies look for in candidates?

If you ask me, today a client can come to us and get a really good quality candidate with more technical skills and at a significant discount compared to just 12 months ago. If someone is getting replaced, it’s fair to say that they’re not paying the same type of wage that they previously did – even if profiles remain consistent. That’s just the reality of labor supply and demand when clients have more choice available.

What about in terms of local content? Are companies’ recruitment efforts now sourcing more towards talent found in Australia, as opposed to abroad?

The talent that we’ve brought into Australia on our visas has always been quite specific. I don’t see that changing. If someone needs a really specific technical skill not available in Australia, of course we’ll try to source from the global market. Now we’re getting to the point of commissioning and increasingly technical requirements that require specialist knowledge – which has been traditionally only found abroad. But there’s also now a lot more Australians that have been trained and mentored by those people, and we see that trend continuing moving forward.

Has the industry’s recent developments altered the way Brunel strategically approaches placements here in Australia?

We’ve successfully provided a lot of blue-collar workers for offshore construction and a significant number of white-collar professionals to the majors. Really, we utilize the same strategic approach but with two slightly different workforces. My main objective over the last 18 months has been to bring our organization together and be less siloed. I don’t see any difference between the two entities in terms of what they provide, but obviously each places stronger emphasis on different areas.

Offshore construction labor has traditionally placed a very strong spotlight on safety. White collars placements, on the other hand, typically relied on our clients to provide safety systems. In the past, the focus on a white collar contractor in terms of their safety and wellbeing and returning to work as soon as possible probably wasn’t at a level we were comfortable with. From our viewpoint, it doesn’t matter if they’re white or blue collar, we should own the safety of that person. As such, we’ve imposed the same level of Brunel’s own safety standards into both worker segments. This is obviously an on-going effort, but we’ve made significant progress so far. We were actually recently acknowledged by a Major Oil and Gas Company for looking after one of the workers that was injured on a site. For us, that was a really proud moment.

Also, compared to our competitors, our blue-collar and white-collar capabilities give us a unique advantage by allowing us to produce a tailor-made approach to suit the specificities of each client. Our business model is far cheaper than a typical EPCM provider. Everyone is looking for cost-effective solutions and we believe Brunel can serve a crucial role in those discussions.

In recent years, the promise of exorbitant wages and widespread work opportunities in Australia had contributed to a robust pipeline of international talent. Those two factors both effectively diminished now, what factors can help maintain Australia’s attraction as an employment destination for expats?

What we need to do is continue to provide meaningful work for our brightest talent. Whether that’s on the forefront of FLNG technology or new techniques to make the most out of existing fields – that kind of investment is what will keep our talent in Australia. It will require a collaborative approach between industry and organizations such as CSIRO and even academic and governmental institutions alike to push the boundaries on innovation – further cementing Australia’s technology leadership and, in turn, appeal.

When we met with Brunel’s COO Arjan de Vries, he was talking about how the current climate presents itself as a truly unique opportunity for the company to take a step back, talk to its clients, and reflect. In your own engagement with stakeholders in Australia, what do companies truly value when it comes to human resource staffing, and how has Brunel truly embodied these values?

They’ve really appreciated the fact that we emphasize long-term partnerships and aim to build productive and sustainable relations with each and every one of them. Our job is to not only to provide them labor, but also a total-solutions service. For us, it feels like we’re always adding more and more to what we do, and that’s part of our value-add. Clients choose us because not only do they get labor, but everything else that comes along with it. A few of our most recognized skills include logistics and injury management – we try to offer those features to our clients, in addition to our standard service. The more we can do for them, the less people they have to bring into Australia and the more money they save.

But, we as a company need to stay relevant. Sometimes our biggest competitor is not another recruitment company, but rather a client’s internal talent pool and hiring process, which is also a typical cost-saving measure. So, we’re competing against more than just the traditional players. For us to be successful, we have to make sure that we make our clients’ lives easier than if they had to do it themselves. Coming back to my earlier point, we have to focus on predicting our clients’ needs and proactively solving problems that they don’t even know exist. That’s our bread and butter.

What will you be focusing on in the next three to five years as the regional manager for Australasia?

There are some really good staff members within our organization and the challenge for me as Regional Manger is keeping that team together and engaged. There will be some tough times in the ensuing 18 months, and my objectives will largely center on diversifying into new segments to drive growth, and ultimately producing fulfilling work for my people. And we’ve got a few strategic initiatives that we’re pursuing locally and globally, which will hopefully pan out soon. Ultimately, we want to continue providing quality service for our clients, and in turn, contributing to Brunel as a whole.

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