Daniel Sandford Smith, Gatsby Foundation: "The future supply of technicians depends on the quality of our vocational education systems."
The UK has a shortage of technicians. Without significant and
sustained action this shortage will worsen, threatening our future economic prosperity reports Daniel Sandford Smith.
A reflection on the importance of the technician role is provided by Barley and Bechky in their work ‘In the backroom of science: The work of technicians in science labs’ (Work and Occupations 21(1):85-126, 1994), which investigated the work of technicians employed in biotechnology labs. They see technicians as standing ‘between the scientists who nominally ran the laboratories and the empirical phenomena that the labs investigated. The technicians used and elaborated a contextual understanding of materials, instruments, and techniques grounded in a hands-on experience that most scientists lacked’.
Gatsby is a foundation set up by David Sainsbury to realise his charitable objectives. Focusing on six programme areas, including science and engineering education, recent research across a number of sectors, including space, aerospace, universities, composites and health, found numerous examples of technicians performing the role described above. In the space sector, for example, interviewees said that ‘technicians take an idea developed by a designer... and translate it into reality’.
The research found that technicians are a critical part of the businesses within these sectors. However, nearly all the firms reported serious difficulties recruiting suitably skilled technicians. Indeed, in some sectors employers said that they are unable to expand their businesses because they cannot find the technician skills they need.
To a certain extent, future growth in these sectors will be dependent on ensuring an adequate supply of technicians. To achieve this, a number of issues will need to be addressed, but two in particular stand out:
• the relatively low status of technicians
• the relative weakness of the education pathways that lead to technician jobs.
One way to improve the status of technicians is through registration. Registration schemes set minimum standards that have to be met; in engineering these standards are set through the United Kingdom Specification for Professional Engineering Competence (UKSPEC). The UKSPEC standards are set and updated by the profession itself, and are strongly focused on the needs of employers. Technicians who meet these standards can register and are then entitled to use the post-nominal EngTech.
Gatsby has supported the Engineering Council to research how the registration and membership offer can better meet the needs of technicians and their employers. This work has revealed a genuine acknowledgement within the profession that more needs to be done to encourage technicians to join professional bodies and become registered.
Gatsby is supporting a number of professional bodies in increasing their technician membership. One of these projects is a partnership between the three largest engineering professional bodies: the IET, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers. The project is in its infancy, but the current foci are to increase the number of young people registering on completion of an apprenticeship, and to work with employers to help them understand how registration can benefit their businesses.
The future supply of technicians depends on the quality of our vocational education system. Unfortunately, vocational qualifications seem to come and go faster than the governments that introduce them, leaving people uncertain about their value.
Professional bodies must play a role in assuring the quality of education pathways. Registration can ensure that vocational education is employment-focused and high quality. By taking the responsibility for standards out of the hands of politicians, it will be possible to stabilise vocational education and focus on developing and supporting high-quality qualifications.
There are encouraging signs that the government recognises the role that professional standards can play. For example, entrepreneur Doug Richard recommends that apprenticeships should meet professional standards so that someone completing an apprenticeship is eligible for EngTech.
However, professional standards cannot underpin vocational education until standards are more widely known. Until there is a critical mass of registrants, employers won’t ask for EngTech and technicians won’t see the value of it. Breaking this trend will require a joint effort from professional bodies, employers and training providers.
Gatsby was a member of the Technical Advisory Panel and Steering Group led by the IET, bringing together SummitSkills, Unite the Union, the Joint Industry Board for the Electrical Contracting Industry, Electrical Contractors’ Association and the Engineering Council to study electricians’ attitudes towards competence and registration. Electricians understand the value of their professional competence being recognised, and would like the organisations to work together to ensure their skills are more widely recognised. It is encouraging to see the willingness of all parties.
Daniel Sandford Smith is director of programmes, Gatsby.
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