Educators and academics are key in unlocking technical talent

Professor Sir John Holman, chair of The TALENT Commission, explains why visibility, value, and voice are essential to retaining the best technical talent

Professor Sir John Holman is Chair of The TALENT Commission and a lecturer at the University of York

HESA, REF, and the Office for Students give us an indication of trends and analysis on academic employment, research impact, student uptake, and widening participation.

Yet knowledge on the UK’s technical workforce – which is fundamental to university teaching and research activities – remains very limited. Unless we understand the make-up of the technician workforce, there is no chance of valuing them properly.

Fortunately, new data now provides a blueprint for the future of the UK’s technical talent in higher education and research.

The TALENT Commission report offers strategic insight on technicians including demographics, funding of technical roles, career pathways, perception, and recognition.

It estimates there are about 23,000 technical staff in the UK. This is more than 10 per cent of the total professional services workforce and more than the total number of academic staff in most programme groupings.

Despite the number of technical staff, their roles, skills, and aspirations often go unrecognised across the sector. The TALENT Commission report aims to change how we collectively support a sustainable, skilled, and valued technical workforce.

Improving visibility and recognition

Put simply, there is not enough joined-up thinking on how the sector can support its technical workforce. Our universities could not function without the endeavours of technical staff yet there is no government planning on investment, training, or development, of a technical staff pipeline.

There are great exemplars of work, including the University of Nottingham and King’s College London, but they will never coalesce into a whole approach without central support. This is not only important for now but for the future.

The national TALENT Commission identifies that the technical workforce is lacking diversity and it’s an aging community. It evidences the biggest barriers to the recruitment and retention of technical staff are a mixture of government policy and institutional initiatives.

The report calls for inclusion of technical staff in hiring decisions, broader vocational pathways to widen the pipeline of technical staff, and outreach in schools on the opportunities these roles bring.

Once technicians are recruited, the report further recommends opening career pathways up to allow greater movement across academia, industry, and the third sector. This will enable institutions to attract a greater diversity of people and skills needed for a thriving sector.

Clearly, recruitment and development of staff are important but this will not be enough to retain them. Forty-seven per cent of respondents to the national survey of technical staff reported they had considered leaving the technical profession within the past three years.

The TALENT Commission identified several, relatively simple, sector-wide changes that institutions and individuals can implement to upskill and retain technical talent by improving visibility and recognition of technicians, investing in training and development, and listening to and empowering technicians.

The report also found that educators and academics who engage technicians in end-to-end recruitment processes when hiring for technical roles will alleviate long-term recruitment challenges and build a loyal workforce.

Enhancing inclusion

So, if we are recruiting, developing, and retaining technical staff, the next question is how to get the most from the valuable and varied skills.

One idea is to welcome technical staff on to decision-making committees to ensure that the technical voice is represented and advocated for. This will increase diversity of thought and make the technician community feel more valued.

Organisations also will benefit from a technician’s perspective, offering practical suggestions to improve health and safety measures and streamline operational and logistics requirements, for instance.

In further valuing their roles, the report also recommended that academics consider how they apportion cost for technical roles when applying for research grants. There is little guidance for this important work which means institutions can establish and implement their own processes and guidance to fund, support, and develop the technical workforce appropriately.

By implementing best practice funding approaches and processes, technical contributions will be acknowledged and recognised within institutions.

Lifelong learning

Fundamentally, technicians who are invested in feel recognised and valued. They can see themselves as part of a wider team which enables them to do their best work and actively engage in training opportunities – which is a win-win for everyone.

The Technician Commitment has created momentum within higher education and research to improve visibility and recognition. The next step is ensuring that technicians feel valued and have a voice, and the report recommends for the sector to do that.

We want organisations to protect learning time and ensure relevant professional development opportunities for technicians now and in the future.

The commission is calling for the creation of a national institute to drive these ambitions forward: the proposed UK Institute of Technical Skills & Strategy would oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report, ensuring a pipeline of skilled technicians to meet the rapidly and continually evolving needs of students, graduates, and industry.

Empowering technicians to become leaders can create real change. My colleague, Kelly Vere who led the TALENT Commission, is testament to the opportunities that can be created by involving technicians within decision making: her work to establish the Technician Commitment to drive forward significant change in the sector has shaped how many organisations operate for the better.

I believe those who are working with technicians day-to-day can play a significant role in improving visibility, value, and voice for technicians.

Giving technicians more power and responsibility will help higher education leaders create more inclusive institutions delivering high-quality teaching and research, ensuring our sector thrives.

2 responses to “Educators and academics are key in unlocking technical talent

  1. “Yet knowledge on the UK’s technical workforce – which is fundamental to university teaching and research activities – remains very limited.” This statement whilst accurate also shows the limiting thought processes in action, the UK’s ‘technical’ workforce is much more than those who work just for Universities.

    Most successful spin-outs need their own technical staff, both heavy and light industries and the more esoteric enterprises that need skilled technicians all place demands on an education system that’s not supplying anywhere near enough people with the skills required. Indeed some Universities have had to start paying ‘market rates’ and premiums to attract suitably skilled staff, and with the shrinking pool of talent in many areas some are now considering paying unconsolidated retention bonuses in the hope that Technicians will stay on poorer pay than the marketplace is offering. Though with the pensions now being attacked again, both USS and ‘local’ scheme’s, many Technicians are questioning the viability of remaining on poor pay with an even worse deferred pay (their pension) to look forward to. Those of us who are 30 years plus in may stay as a ‘late’ in life job change isn’t so easy, but many younger technical staff will vote with their feet once they realise the concrete pay grade ceiling when reached means a year on year pay cut in real terms, especially when they look at their ‘real world’ ™ industrial comparators who are on much higher salaries to start with.

    Those Universities that grade using HERA may do better than those that use HAY which has an inbuilt bias towards admin roles in recruiting and more importantly retaining technical staff.

    On the subject of recognition, I know I’m not the only Technician who has had their ‘prior art’ taken and patented without their knowledge of even an acknowledgement, let alone an equal ‘share’ in the patent, by an Academic. Similarly proper acknowledgement in submitted papers is seen by many ‘leading authors’ (heads of departments who have be be included even though they had little or no input) as diluting their standing, ‘god’ often forbids a Technician getting a co-authorship even when that Technicians input was significant.

    Some Academic communities resistance to appointing more diverse/inclusive technical staff comes from their own home countries views on race, gender and caste, even when working as an Academic in a UK University. Addressing such things will take time, patience and being will to sustain the effort when accused of ‘cultural insensitivity’ or even racism, and we must not ignore the corrosive effects of other governments sponsored groups such as the Confucius Institutes within Universities either.

    1. Oh the excitement, with £13 a day travel assistance, from an E-mail just received:

      “We are excited to announce a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your technical know-how at the Science Museum this year. In November 2022, the Science Museum is opening, “Technicians: The David Sainsbury Gallery”. This cutting-edge, interactive gallery is intended to inspire young people aged between 11-16 to consider technical careers across a range of industries, and to a showcase the amazing and often unseen work of our technical workforce. As part of this, the museum is recruiting a team of technicians from a range of organisations to create and deliver authentic and engaging activities for young people.
      Any technicians who take part in the programme will receive free training from the museum and will be able to work with local young people to create activities inspired by their work and achievements. The Science Museum’s experienced engagement team will also be on hand to offer any necessary support.
      Technicians will be able to create and deliver a range of different activities for young people, including, but not limited to:
      • Engaging conversations, such as Q&A sessions
      • Hands-on workshops
      • Demonstrations
      • Show-and-tell activities or object handling
      These activities will be repeatable over several days across a year, giving you the chance to inspire hundreds of young people and develop confidence and skills in public engagement.
      Lunch will be provided free of charge and the Science Museum is able to offer £13 per technician per delivery day towards travel.”

      I do hope an technician who gets involved is properly supported, and has an enhanced disclosure in place should as so often happens that they get school parties dumped on them without appropriate teacher supervision…

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