The technical role in higher education in the 21st century has traditionally been neglected and misunderstood by the wider sector and is often overlooked by principal investigators and institutions. This is unfortunate as the technicians of today are experts in their own right, highly experienced with skills and expertise, and in some cases highly qualified. They also in many cases directly contribute to research and teaching.
There is a lack of knowledge and understanding around the role of the technician – they are the ‘unknown’ professionals of HE. They lack recognition, often to the extent that they may not be included in HE strategic plans. Yet, HEFCE data suggest there are over 33,000 technicians working in English universities alone. This number increases to over 65,000 when Scottish universities and research council institutions are also included.
The technical workforce is often an untapped and under utilised resource. As a result of this lack of understanding, there is limited opportunity for technicians themselves to formally develop skills and career pathways.
In addition, there is a variation of technical job titles as well as a lack of consistency in technical roles and terminology. This situation exists both within and across institutions. This not only adds to problems with workforce planning but has also led to career stagnation and inequality.
40% of all HE technicians in England are aged 50 or over (HEFCE), suggesting an imminent need for succession planning and training of a new technician workforce
These factors along with the complexity and diversity of the HE environment has also led to poor succession planning within the technical workforce; the impact of which has been the loss of critical skills.
The Technician Council found that the UK must educate another 450,000 technicians across all sectors by 2020 to address a massive skills shortage. Subsequent reports have indicated the number is even higher.
Within England, HEFCE data shows that 40% of all HE technicians are aged 50 or over. This suggests that succession planning and wider development of the technician workforce need to be in place to ensure a highly skilled professional technician workforce for the future.
Whilst a recent report by Gatsby has found that “35% of firms working in STEM are expecting problems in recruiting technicians in the next three years.” This skills gap has been exacerbated by significant recruitment difficulties due to the specialist nature of the work.
Whilst there are apprenticeships and traineeships designed to bring on new talent, there is a lack of consistency in approach. This means there is no set framework, even at the entry point, to support individuals beginning their technical career.
The Gatsby report suggests that “we need around 70,000 newly qualified technicians each year to replace those retiring and to fill the new opportunities opening up” and that the UK will need 700,000 new technicians by 2020.
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