How many technicians do you have in your institution? What areas do they cover? What are their skills and competencies? And are these sufficient for your needs in your own institution? Do your technical staff get involved in teaching? What is the age profile of your technical staff and what are your plans to replace those who leave or retire, particularly where those skills are business critical?

If you think that technicians are just staff who wear white coats and set up laboratories for academic staff in Science, Engineering and Medicine to teach undergraduates, think again.

Technicians get involved in many other areas in universities. Highly skilled technicians support many arts and humanities courses. There will also be a team of individuals supporting the institution’s audio-visual requirements.

Others will be expert in the operation of critical and expensive research equipment; and often can be key to the interpretation of results and the production of research outputs. Yet others will be the only support available to students when they are undertaking laboratory based work, guiding the students and passing on knowledge about the concepts and principles involved. This could be called ‘teaching’.

Disruption and ‘dynamic conservatism’

The world for technicians in universities is changing and evolving. In times past, typically, a new technician would be employed by a department, learn many of the skills they needed on the job, and gain promotion through dead man’s shoes. If a technician had additional skills which could be of wider benefit to the university, these weren’t recognised and rarely used. Technicians were working in fairly closed communities.

I am reminded of the social structures described in Barry Cunliffe’s book Iron Age Communities in Britain – a bible for me when I was an undergraduate. Cunliffe describes one of the innate characteristics of all communities as dynamic conservatism. By this he means that communities tend to form into closed, slowly evolving, social systems, which are disrupted only when they encounter traumatic events. This is what we see when we examine how universities manage their technicians.

For the Iron Age communities in Britain it was the incursion of the Romans in 43AD. University technicians may not face quite the same ‘trauma’ as dealing with the might of the Roman Imperial Army, but the changes are significant: workforce contraction, an increasingly complex technology base, a demographic time bomb of senior, experienced technical staff who are retiring with no succession planning in place, and a set of new entrants who, increasingly, want to see an attractive career path laid out for them.

On top of this, as the economy strengthens similar and better paid jobs in industry, where many of these problems have been solved, will become more readily available. Not quite a perfect storm but certainly a combination of disruptive events.

Modernising career pathways

The answers to many of these problems are complex and non-trivial.

HEFCE has funded a project, based at the University of Sheffield, with the snappy title of ‘Development and embedding of career pathways for technicians across the higher education sector’. The project has its own website which has the more engaging title of Technical Development and Modernisation. Along with Sheffield, the project has five other institutions as partners.

The project team, led by Terry Croft, is moving forwards on many fronts. One of the many issues is understanding the breadth and depth of the technician workforce.

The team has developed a survey which has been piloted at Sheffield, and is shortly to be issued at the partner institutions. Response rates at Sheffield have been good and once it has been further piloted with the other universities, the survey should offer information from over 1,000 technicians.

Another key issue is understanding technical competencies. Without this information all of the issues surrounding workforce planning, training and development will be impossible to solve. So far the team has identified over 1,000 skills and potential competencies. This list will grow.

I accompanied the team on a visit from a software company, which is launching a system in the airline industry to log the skills and training of maintenance engineers. This is critical for the industry in order to manage the risk of lawsuits should there be an air accident; but both sectors share many of the underlying issues.

The software company started by explaining the industry’s complexities. Soon they began to realise that they weren’t impressing their university audience, who could trump anything they had to offer. Still, the software was impressive and could offer a useful way forward.

The project team is working on other areas, which I won’t go in to in any detail. They include networking and forums, standardisation of grades, training and development schemes, career pathways, and mentoring arrangements. In most, if not all, of these areas, university HR departments’ involvement is critical.

It is clear from my involvement with this group that there needs to be central co-ordination of these activities for some time after the project finishes in 2017. How this will be funded I will leave as an open question for now, but it needs answering within the next 12 months.

With my efficiency hat on, I am also questioning how we measure efficiency and productivity improvements in the career structure for technicians. This is not an aim of the original project, but it is something we need to do to show the evidence of HE efficiencies to Government.

One of the issues for any institutions in setting out to undertake any changes in this area is that the landscape is complex and likely to be incomplete. So establishing the potential efficiencies – ‘benefits realisations case’, is the technical term – will be tricky. I have been working with FXPlus, the joint Falmouth and Exeter campus in Cornwall, to create a model to establish the benefits of shared services in the sector. This is a web-based tool and will be launched on the 11 February. Watch this blog for more information soon.

But it is clear to me that a similar tool concentrating on the technical workforce would be of value. Any institutions interested in participating in the development of this tool, please get in touch and we can talk it through.