Shropshire Star

Partnership is ‘bearing fruit’ for specialist Telford recruitment firm

An exciting initiative to grow the UK’s agricultural industry is ‘bearing fruit’ for a specialist recruitment firm since it joined Telford’s agri-tech innovation hub.

Mark Thackwray

Jonathan Lee Recruitment took up offices in the Agri-EPI Centre, based at Harper Adams University, earlier this year to be closer to the community it serves – supporting agri-tech businesses by sourcing the specialist skills they need to develop ideas, design processes, or grow their operations.

The move has led to more conversations, more enquiries, and new clients, which is enabling the company to contribute towards the creation of a more sustainable society.

Grant Nisbet, Director of Jonathan Lee Recruitment, said: “There are some really exciting innovations happening in agri-tech right now which are transforming the UK agricultural industry to become more efficient and more sustainable.

“But finding the right people to drive those innovations forward is challenging. Talent attraction and management solutions are needed more than ever to bridge that skills gap.

"The Agri-EPI Centre is home to a variety of these innovative projects, as well as being closely linked to the sector-leading Harper Adams University and the nearby agri-tech Ni.Park in Newport, which has just opened a second phase.

“Being at the heart of that community, both in Telford and the Agri-EPI Centre itself, is enabling us to add even more value to the sector. It’s opened many doors, including giving us immediate access to a 200+ membership of businesses in the agri-tech sector.

“We even helped the start-up in the office next door to find a design engineer to work on the development of their unique new broccoli harvesting machine. It’s almost certain we wouldn’t have had this opportunity if we weren’t based in the centre.”

UPP has pioneered new technology which uses AI and automation to harvest broccoli crops more efficiently while significantly reducing waste by collecting the previously discarded parts of the plant to turn into sustainable proteins.

The smart machinery fully automates the spotting, cutting, lifting and carrying process at a rate of up to 3km/h, and allows for the 80% of the plant that is normally left behind to be upcycled into a product that can now be sold.

But the company was struggling to find a suitably qualified and experienced design engineer to help take the prototypes forward and Jonathan Lee was able to find the perfect candidate with an agricultural and engineering background who, not only had the right skillset, but was also looking to escape the city rat race.

Mark Thackwray was also at a time in his life where he was willing and able to take what some might perceive as a risk, by joining an agri-tech start-up.

Mark has held a variety of roles throughout his career in both manual and design aspects of engineering since studying mechanical engineering with agriculture at Harper Adams University in the early 1980s. Later he completed a Bachelor of Engineering degree and added skills in CAD software.

He has always had a love of agriculture, after growing up next to a farm, and was able to pursue his passion in the early stages of his career, working at companies where he was involved in early irrigation systems and designing prototype balers and potato harvesters.

But in recent years, he’d been working in more heavy industrial settings, including his previous job working as a design engineer at an industrial equipment supplier.

After suffering with serious health problems throughout a large portion of his adult life and now aged 61, Mark was looking for a change – he just didn’t know what it was.

“I’d put my CV out there and had several approaches and job offers straight away, but it was the consultants at Jonathan Lee who really grasped what I was looking for and spotted my potential for the role at UPP,” Mark said. “My early career was all agricultural and while I’ve worked in and around that to some extent since, it’s been mostly in more stressful industrial applications in recent years.

“Part of the job stress was a hectic, busy commute to the outskirts of Birmingham. I now travel a short distance in the opposite direction to a wonderful countryside location which is right on my doorstep.

“The stress of those previous roles was even making me consider a complete career change to driving a taxi or something. But this is perfect. I get to work on an exciting project with a lot of problem solving. I work on the design, but I can also be hands on, so I’m drawing on all my skills.

“I know people might think it’s a risk working for a start-up, but given all the benefits of the job and the rural setting, it was a risk that was definitely worth taking for me. The job, the place, the building, the people, it’s all fantastic. When I come outside, I can breathe the fresh air and hear the birds tweeting rather than being next to a main road on a busy industrial estate. The opportunity to design something which I know will impact people’s lives is also pretty great. I’m much happier.

“As well as recognising the transferrable skills, Matt, Peter and the team at Jonathan Lee realised that it was as much about the values and additional benefits for me, which led me to pursue the role at UPP rather than one of the other prospects I had on the table. I’m lucky that they felt I was the right fit for them too."

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