Labs face crisis due to shortage of technicians

Warnings a decade ago about the impact of cutbacks went unheeded, writes Hannah Fearn

April 16, 2009

The higher education sector is facing a crisis in its laboratories as the number of technicians is set to plummet, despite attempts to highlight the problem more than a decade ago.

According to Lifelong Learning UK (LLUK), financial cutbacks over the past 25 years forced universities to suspend recruitment and training of technicians, leaving the sector facing a huge skills shortage as the majority of technical staff near retirement.

LLUK said that the average age of a laboratory technician was 45, and many were set to retire within the next ten years. The organisation said that new apprenticeship programmes were needed to replace the valuable skills that would be lost if a dying breed was allowed to become extinct.

Andrew Taylor, staff development and training officer at University College London, said: "The implications for science teaching are huge. We have a number of lab technicians who are being kept on over the age of 65. We're struggling to find replacements."

He said the situation could result in laboratory work grinding to a halt or underqualified staff handling substances or experiments they were not trained to deal with, potentially leading to an expensive lawsuit for the university.

"We are in a health-and-safety culture. The work that is done for undergraduates is done by laboratory technicians," Mr Taylor said. "It's all well and good Gordon Brown going to Oxford recently and talking up science, but without (technical) support we can't do it."

In the past 20 years, UCL almost doubled in size, but the number of laboratory technicians is thought to have halved.

As long as ten years ago, in 1998, a Royal Society report alerted universities to the ticking time bomb of retiring technicians, and a major Higher Education Funding Council for England funding programme - HEaTED - was launched in 2007 to try to address the problem.

Within the UCL physics and astronomy department, 50 per cent of technical staff are likely to retire in the coming decade.

When a microscope breaks, it now costs UCL £70 to send it to a specialist centre for repair, which takes the equipment out of action for a month. UCL said it wanted to bring these skills back on campus, and it had already called former employees out of retirement to train younger staff.

UCL said it hoped to run a pilot apprenticeship programme with City and Islington College, with advice from the science and engineering sector skills council, Semta. It said it intended to take on six apprentices each year, so would have 18 by the third year.

While the UCL pilot was set to concentrate on science staff, LLUK said it was drawing up an apprenticeship programme for all academic disciplines with plans to implement it nationwide by September 2010.

"There is a huge number of other technicians that don't work in the science lab or in IT. We have technicians in the theatre environment and in art," said Maria Garnett, higher education constituency manager at the LLUK.

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