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‘Just a technician?’ Not any more! Why it’s a great time to be a technician in higher education and research

  • 28 September 2022
  • By Jiteen Ahmed

Midlands Innovation is a strategic research partnership of eight research intensive universities in the Midlands. Funding was awarded by Research England in 2020 for ‘TALENT’ – a transformation programme to advance status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers. The TALENT Commission report was published in 2022. Jiteen Ahmed, Head of Technical Services at Aston University, was a Commissioner on the policy commission project team.

‘Team Science’ is a term that’s gained real traction in recent years. Yet the reality of this collaborative concept has been around for much longer and the technical workforce has always played a key role supporting teaching and research in universities. 

However, technical staff – prior to the Technician Commitment initiative and the recently published TALENT Commission report – were often referred to as a hidden workforce, often only to be noticed when the technical colleague either left or retired, due to the loss of the skills and knowledge they provided. The TALENT Commission report highlights this as a national issue, with 30 per cent of the technical workforce in 2018/19 aged 50+ and 18 percent aged 55+, likely to retire in 10-15 years (HESA data).

Many technical colleagues have changed roles due to the lack of career development opportunities for technicians, or a clear pathway which would support their progress. Some left their roles due to the lack of appreciation of the knowledge, skills and experience they provide which, if harnessed, could help support key decision-making in areas such as the direction of programmes, important health and safety protocols and procurement.

This is further backed up by data in the TALENT Commission which identifies 47 per cent of technicians in a national survey had considered leaving the technical profession within the last three years. Sixty-five per cent cited lack of opportunities for career progression, followed by lack of recognition (44 per cent), proof that it is vital that we should safeguard the future of technical staff.  

Technical staff who, in my opinion, play a significant role in ‘Team Science’.

Acting on the Technician Commitment

The Technician Commitment, supported by the Gatsby Foundation and the Science Council, has worked to address this by focussing on four key areas: Career Development, Recognition, Visibility and Sustainability. 

Universities such as my own institution, Aston University, was one of the first signatories of the Technician Commitment meaning that it has pledged to support, value and recognise the knowledge, experience and skills provided by its technical workforce. 

For my technical colleagues at Aston, this has already fostered a sense of being valued by academic colleagues for the knowledge they bring, ensuring students are meeting learning outcomes.

This is helped further by involving technical staff in key decision-making groups, like senior management teams, and technical staff taking on broader responsibilities, such as being the University Radiation lead for Radiation Safety, or LGBTQ+ inclusivity, to name a few.

As well as improving recruitment and retention, we have cultivated a more diverse and sustainable workforce in the form of technical apprentices, allowing experienced technical staff to pass on knowledge and skills, whilst at the same time feeling valued for doing so and being part of the journey to support the technical staff of the future. 

Greater recognition means that the technical community no longer feels part of a hidden workforce thanks to awards such as ‘Aston Achievement Awards. Seeing fellow members of the technical community being recognised in the Times Higher Education Awards, has again made a positive difference for technical colleagues, helping them to feel valued and their voice is being heard and appreciated. 

However, the positive journey doesn’t end there.

Championing the role of technicians 

Midlands Innovation, a strategic research and innovation partnership of eight universities (Aston University, the University of Birmingham, Cranfield University, Keele University, the University of Leicester, Loughborough University, the University of Nottingham and the University of Warwick) was awarded one of the largest investments in the technical community, funded by Research England for the MI TALENT project.

MI TALENT leads and influences change to advance status and opportunity for technical skills, roles and careers in UK higher education and research, with support from partners Science Council, Technician Commitment, Wellcome Trust, British Geological Society, Manufacturing Technology Centre, Rolls-Royce PLC, Unilever, Thales Alenia Space, Cobra Biologics and Midlands Engine. 

The TALENT Policy Commission launched in 2020 to address the paucity of insight and knowledge into the technical skills, roles and careers, and I was asked to be one of the Commissioners alongside the inspirational Professor Sir John Holman, several higher education Vice Chancellors, technical staff, representatives from UKRI, Wellcome Trust, Royal Society of Chemistry and other key members of the sector.  

A wealth of evidence was gathered from focus groups, research on technical staff and surveys and existing data to provide new strategic insights and 16 targeted recommendations to further recognise, value, and support the technical community to meet future demand from emerging sectors. 

Some of the key recommendations include: designing career development pathways; including technical staff on key decision-making communities; addressing the significant Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity issues facing the technical communities; recognising research and teaching inputs; involving technical staff in outreach; and ensuring that technical staff are involved in end-to-end recruitment of technical staff. These are just a flavour of the key recommendations which will support the technical community and ‘Team Science’.

Since the TALENT Commission report was published in February 2022, I have already seen greater recognition and opportunities for technicians. 

Within Aston University we have launched the new Technical Development Training fund, providing targeted training opportunities for our technicians and protected learning time. 

Regionally, senior leaders from UKRI personally invited technician colleagues from all levels and disciplines within the Midlands Innovation partnership, including myself, to listen to our views on UKRI’s new strategy. This was a huge opportunity to represent the voice of technicians and to be involved in discussions about world-class innovation and the opportunities, people and conditions that make it thrive.

And nationally technicians are now being actively invited onto the global competition YES, which raises awareness of commercialising ideas in science and engineering. 

Supporting technical talent of the future 

I’m confident the impact of the report will further enhance and cement the positivity and the feeling of being valued for the impact that the technical staff make in the teaching and research environment. 

It is important that the MI TALENT recommendations are implemented. The recommendations are key to supporting Team Science not only in producing high-quality, impactful research but also in supporting students to meet their own learning outcomes. 

The difference that the Technician Commitment is making, and the TALENT Commission report has started to make, is clear. I hear comments from colleagues such as, ‘I no longer feel undervalued and hidden’ and ‘I can see a career pathway here’. While it’s still early days, such comments bring me hope, and, speaking as a technician myself, it really is a great time to be a technician. Long may this continue!

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