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How universities can step up to support the technical workforce

  • 19 October 2022
  • By Jane Hubble

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, Jane Hubble, Head of Technical Services in the School of Water, Energy and Environment at Cranfield University explains how universities can step up to support the technical workforce.

Technicians have quietly beavered away in the background of university research and teaching for decades; an army of quiet achievers who can be some of the most knowledgeable people within research environments. But it’s a group that has at times been overlooked by the sector, and for this to really change we need universities to forge ahead with making it happen.

Earlier this year, I found myself in the grand and lofty surroundings of the House of Lords at a Parliamentary reception event marking the publication of the TALENT Commission report.

Joining the technical workforce 25 years ago at Cranfield University, I could never have dreamt that I would be working at a strategic level for technicians and their careers in higher education.

I listened with delight to Cranfield University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karen Holford, speaking about the technical workforce. As an engineer, Professor Holford knows first-hand the value of technical staff. She presented a joint statement from the Midlands Innovation (MI) group of universities at the reception, setting out 10 statements that universities in the group have committed to in response to the TALENT Commission’s recommendations.

An ambition to create a diverse and talented workforce

Like all the MI universities who are founding signatories of the Technician Commitment, Cranfield is already working towards addressing the statements as part of its own action plan. It’s a great opportunity to review progress and agree further actions to support technicians. The push to attract, recruit and retain diverse talent is also a core part of our new strategy, Ambition 2027, positioning Cranfield as an employer of choice at all levels. 

The elements of the MI response which particularly resonate for me at Cranfield are the focus on developing opportunities via technical specialist pathways, protecting time for development and supporting staff in career progression. 

At Cranfield, we’ve recently launched a refreshed technical career pathway, expanding the previous pathway through to all pay grades. Each grade is accompanied by a clear outline of the requirements, along with suggestions of suitable development activities to enable progression. At senior levels there is progression through managerial or specialist routes. 

This development provides a way forward for technical staff to progress and is a really welcome development at our University. Previously, technical positions did not exist at senior levels so progression either involved taking on different roles or was practically non-existent. 

For some colleagues, professional development time has been associated with mandatory health and safety training and refresher courses. For others, finding time away from the busy demands of their department can be really challenging. The encouragement of line managers coupled with the support of academic and senior colleagues is going to be key to enabling dedicated development time for technical staff. 

Thinking outside the university box

Cranfield also has a real affinity to forming partnerships with organisations and initiatives that support our technical community, which is another part of the MI commitment. 

Our University has strong links with industry, it is at the core of what we do at Cranfield. Technicians here often liaise with industry contacts and take leading roles in the delivery of industrial research projects. 

That puts them at the forefront of technology development, building skills and knowledge which are very exciting and unique. Technicians have years of experience and can provide invaluable input from a technical perspective to influence industrial projects. This not only helps project innovation and progression, but it is also a great way for technicians to develop themselves, both personally and professionally. They become an essential part of future technological advances. Technicians make things happen – it is in their DNA. 

Thinking back to the reception at the House of Lords, it signified the beginning of what I believe is the next step in an exciting journey for the technical workforce. The Technician Commitment continues to bring recognition and visibility of what we do, along with greater career opportunities. With universities committing to the statements to support technical staff, the future looks really bright – and that’s something I definitely want to be part of!

Explore our blogs on technical talent:

HEPI Research Conference:

HEPI is hosting a research conference in central London on Thursday, 3 November 2022, in conjunction with Elsevier, a HEPI Partner. For further details, including an agenda and details on how to book a place, see https://bookwhen.com/hepi. Organisations that already support HEPI are entitled to free places.

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