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Engineering technical roles fit for the future

  • 12 October 2022
  • By Richard Taylor and Julie Turner

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. 

HEPI is running a series of blogs with Midlands Innovation championing the role of technicians in higher education and research. In this post, Richard Taylor, Chief Operating Officer and Julie Turner, Strategic Scientific Technical Lead from Loughborough University explain how they have used technicians’ feedback to shape technical roles and new career paths. 

Universities have always been structured according to a clear hierarchy which has enabled institutions to develop specialist areas of expertise within faculties and academic schools. But does this traditional organisational design within universities support equal career opportunities for all staff, especially those who play a critical role in teaching and research activities?

We have recently launched our ambitious new strategy which has, for the first time, involved feedback from our technicians, who will be integral to the delivery of our strategic priorities, alongside the rest of our university community. 

Prior to the new strategy, Loughborough University recognised that the traditional organisational structure wasn’t serving all our people in this evolving landscape, in particular our technical community which includes around 170 staff within academic schools, and around 80 within IT and professional services roles.

Lost in translation

For many years, our technicians have been line managed by generalists – a consequence of the higher education sector’s organisational design, coupled with limited career progression for technicians above a level six, which meant that few technicians were line managing people or teams.

It became apparent that feedback from the technical community was being lost in translation, as those who were advocating for technicians simply couldn’t appreciate the nuances of the day-to-day challenges within specialist technical roles.

A new strategic position was established to tackle this in 2020. Julie’s background in science, health and safety – and having been a technician herself – meant that she could recognise and understand most challenges and barriers technicians were experiencing more easily. 

Within the last two years, she has scheduled time to speak to every single technician within the University – something which had never been done before. From this, several themes were identified which are now being addressed. It is important that we involve technical colleagues in all our Technician Commitment action plan and projects: therefore, many are technician led.

Expanding the job family 

We had many aspiring technicians who wanted to progress their careers with us, but the job profiles for their current roles didn’t adequately line up with the skills and criteria for higher level roles. Recruiting for technical specialists proved challenging because of the diversity of specialist skills at Loughborough University within engineering, laboratories, ceramics and creative arts workshops, for example. This needed to change. 

As well as offering more learning and development opportunities through the TALENT programme funded by Research England, we recognised that we needed to improve our technical job profiles to enhance career opportunities, develop our people and meet future demand from emerging sectors.

We are in the process of changing the role profiles allowing technicians to be more innovative in their positions, supporting them to take on new projects and responsibilities, write research grants and explore routes into teaching and line management, should they want to. 

Some of the recent changes have resulted in our teaching technicians sharing ideas in focus groups, contributing to the University’s teaching strategy and co-designing modules for students. And, in future, we hope to see more research relationships built by our motivated technicians thanks to the opportunities the new career pathway will provide.

Our technicians also told us they wanted to see a new apprentice scheme with the opportunity to transfer skills and technical expertise, as well as new leadership and mentoring opportunities. As a result, we’re expecting to launch a brand-new apprentice scheme in the next academic year. Technical staff are involved in the project team and will be delivering programme inductions. 

Creating an open dialogue 

Enhancing technical job profiles and establishing a new technical apprentice scheme are two major changes that have been driven by feedback from our technical community. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support from the senior team and a strategic lead who was able to position the technical workforce better in line with the University’s ambitions.  

Our senior leadership team have also taken the time to ‘walk the floor’, see what our technicians do, listen to their challenges and better understand their roles. This has led to an open dialogue and a more engaged technical community. The conversations have created solutions and opportunities to plug the future skills gap. 

Visibility and recognition of the technical community has improved significantly. We still have a way to go, but we’re confident that implementing these changes, outlined as key recommendations within the TALENT Commission report, will reap rewards. 

Explore our blogs on technical talent:

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