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, Gemma Black, Technical Services Manager for the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment at University of Leicester explains how institutions can lean into their technical staff for resilience in a time of crisis.
Technicians are problem solvers. By the very nature of our roles supporting research and teaching in higher education, we’re used to thinking on our feet and making things happen. We are the people on the ground in laboratories, workshops and studios who ensure students and researchers can access equipment safely, and make sure learning environments are operational and that the right resources are available for lectures.
During times of crisis, people with problem-solving abilities can provide fresh perspectives and valuable insights which help strengthen the resilience of teams and organisations. Institutions that engage with their technical community and listen to technical voices will learn a lot about day-to-day delivery, the benefits of building networks and the best ways to overcome issues, often before they arise.
One of the recommendations in the recently published TALENT Commission report is for technicians to be part of decision-making committees. The University of Leicester, along with the other Midlands Innovation partners, has recognised the benefits of this and committed to implementing the recommendation. The value and importance of the technical voice at the centre of decision making is highlighted by the response to, and resolution of, a recent major incident.
A crisis within a crisis
Almost two years ago, during the COVID-19 pandemic, our institution, like all others across the country, was in problem-solving mode. We were establishing new ways of working, mapping out new protocols to bring people back onto campus and into our buildings safely. An emergency affecting a campus building set back these plans, presenting an additional challenge amid the pandemic and highlighting the value of technical expertise in resolving the situation as quickly as possible.
A major incident was declared when a building flooded in November 2020. It closed immediately and the priority was to make it safe and secure, power down equipment in laboratories and assess the wider impact on research and teaching activities.
As one of the few people in the institution who knows the building’s floor plan, what the rooms contain and where the risks are, I was responsible for drafting a list of equipment that needed assessing, checking radioactive sources, hazardous chemicals, and collections of specimens and historical maps.
I reported directly to the University’s Major Incident Team, providing vital information about water damage and the impact on the building and infrastructure, and offering advice on operational decisions. Technical input was required to inform major decisions around getting people back into the building, implementing one-way systems and safe routes from start to finish.
As well as reporting at a senior level, I was one of the first to return to the building after the flood (in my wellies) and I continued to work closely with the school safety team on the ground, assessing damage from the basement across the building’s five floors and reviewing the seven lecture theatres, study areas, labs and technical spaces and offices.
Across all institutions, the pandemic shone a light on the skills and value of technicians in higher education and research. Technical staff were often the last people to leave and the first to return to campus. In many cases, technicians never even left.
While the challenge of a flood during a pandemic isn’t something that I would like to see repeated, a lot of lessons were learned and the value of including a technician in discussions at a senior level was evident.
Technical insight allowed decisions to be made quickly, which likewise enabled the University to respond rapidly at a time when resources were already stretched. Several best practice protocols introduced during the crisis remain in place, such as clear visibility across the technical team for lab space and equipment bookings, having primary and secondary staff trained on all equipment and weekly communications as part of our business continuity planning.
The University of Leicester signed up to the Midlands Innovation joint statement which commits to implementing the employer recommendations within the TALENT Commission report. One is to ensure that technical staff sit on appropriate institution- and sector-level decision-making committees and boards.
Having a technical voice on our major incident management team is a perfect example of how other organisations can build institutional resilience by tapping into the skills and experience of their technical workforce.
Explore our blogs on technical talent:
- Helen Turner, ‘Championing the Role of Technicians’, HEPI blog, 21 September 2022.
- Jiteen Ahmed, ‘Just a technician?’ Not any more! Why it’s a great time to be a technician in higher education and research’, HEPI blog, 28 September 2022.
- Sam Kingman, ‘Empowering technicians: our journey’, HEPI blog, 5 October 2022.
- Richard Taylor and Julie Turner, ‘Engineering technical roles fit for the future’, HEPI blog, 12 October 2022.
- Jane Hubble, ‘How universities can step up to support the technical workforce’, HEPI blog, 19 October 2022.
- Trevor McMillian, ‘Delivering the Future: How universities can leverage technical expertise to fuel innovation’, HEPI blog, 26 October 2022.
- Kostas Kollydas and Anne Green, ‘Key Facts and Figures about the Graduate Technical workforce’, HEPI blog, 2 November 2022.
- Sarah Bennett, ‘Research culture from a technical point of view’, HEPI blog, 9 November 2022.