Labs at risk from loss of expertise

January 4, 2008

Age 'time bomb' and poor training threaten skills drain as technicans not replaced. Chloe Stothart reports.

University laboratories face a "demographic time bomb" as large numbers of technicians reach retirement age with no one to replace them.

The average university technician is aged over 40 and almost a third are over 50 years old, according to their trade union, Amicus Unite. It also warns that the training schemes that drew that generation of technicians into the sector have largely withered.

A report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England by consultancy Evidence Ltd found a 22 per cent drop in the number of technicians in engineering between the 1996 and 2001 research assessment exercises, almost a 23 per cent decline in biological sciences technicians and 16 and 17 per cent decreases in technicians for physical sciences and pre-clinical technicians.

"People are not coming into the sector as there is no development for them, and we are losing people because of the demographic time bomb," said Matt Levi, manager of the Leadership Foundation's Heated project, which was set up to research the problem.

"If we are going to be world class we need the technical specialists, and there is no question that very, very specialist skills will be lost unless we do something," said Mr Levi.

Ken Jakeman, deputy manager of Birmingham University's School of Biosciences, said that a large number of the institution's technicians would reach retirement age between 2013 and 2015.

He said that the shortage of technicians and the time spent training them can eat into research projects. "It does increase the time it takes to do the same research because you have to train more people up," Mr Jakeman said.

"The quality of research at present is not affected, but I don't know whether it will be in future. Decisions need to be taken now to prevent that happening."

He added that some technicians leave academia at the end of fixed-term contracts for better paid opportunities in industry or the National Health Service.

Early retirement schemes at some universities have further eroded the number of technicians, said Alan Willcocks, departmental services manager in the department of cell physiology and pharmacology at Leicester University.

Newer technicians do not have all the skills of their predecessors, Mr Willcocks said. "The vacancies we have for lower grade technicians are taken by recent or inexperienced graduates, so while they are well educated they simply do not have the type of experience needed in terms of technical training to run or manage a department or work at a more senior level."

Mike Robinson, national officer at Amicus Unite, highlighted the impact on students. He said: "Universities will not be able to function without these technicians. They are the unseen aspect of student life. Some of what they do is so complex that, if technicians are not there, students will not be able to carry out the research they want to do."

University technicians, who currently do not have a dedicated professional organisation, are about to get a new body that aims to solve their skills crisis.

The Heated project will become a membership body offering training courses and research into the sector in the summer. It has received £75,000 start- up funding from Hefce and must be self-funding within 18 months.

The modest funding level could be a difficulty, said Mr Levi, but he still believes Heated could solve the skills problem.

But Mr Jakeman said that while Heated could resolve professional development issues, universities need to resume taking on trainees in order to have a cohort of young technicians.

'Probably half of us are in our late fifties': a vital but shrinking

The essential efforts of university lab technicians are usually unsung, writes Chloe Stothart.

Manchester University broke with this tradition by naming a building after William Kay, the assistant of Ernest Rutherford, who was instrumental in the great scientist's experiments to uncover the structure of atoms. But such public acknowledgment is rare, and today there are plenty of technicians who quietly keep the wheels of the university's labs turning with little or no recognition.

Val Boote, Manchester's mass spectrometry manager, is one such. She regularly rolls up her sleeves to fix the mass spectrometer in her lab when it breaks. "We spend our lives with spanners in our hands," she said. By figuring out why these expensive machines will not work and fixing everything from broken pumps to blocked tubes, technicians in the mass spectrometry labs save the university about £20,000 a year in maintenance costs, she estimates.

"The savings from keeping instruments going could fund a junior technician," she said.

Ms Boote's job is all about keeping the machinery working for students and processing their samples. However, she has also been part of some interesting discoveries. "A mother took her baby to hospital because its faeces were red and she could not understand why," she recalled. "We did an examination and found the nappy rash cream she had been putting on the baby's bottom contained mercury." The lab's investigation helped to get the dangerous element removed from the cream.

Ms Boote left school after O levels and went on to work at drugs company Pfizer where she was trained on the job and did an ordinary national diploma and a higher national diploma. She got the job at Manchester in 1971 in mass spectrometry, her favourite area, and has been there ever since.

At 57, she is one of a large cohort in the department nearing retirement. "Probably half of us are in our late fifties and we have just had a few retirements," she said. Although she took on a trainee a year ago, there is always a danger that he could leave the sector for a better-paid job in industry once she has trained him. Some universities are cutting back on staff and have not been taking on trainees, she added.

If the number of skilled technicians continues to slide, Ms Boote speculates that universities may have to pay external engineers to maintain the machines, force departments to share lab facilities or send samples to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's national laboratory service in Swansea.

"Instead of getting results here the next day, they would have to send them away and wait a week," Ms Boote said. Such belt-tightening would have a negative effect on students' work. "How many more Rutherfords could universities produce under these circumstances?" she asked.

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