University of Sheffield centre to tackle decline of technicians

Hopes that coordination across universities and better career paths can renew technician workforce

February 25, 2016
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Not another one down: without well-trained technicians, some aspects of scientific research could suffer

UK universities are facing an exodus of skilled technicians from labs and studios that could paralyse some aspects of research, it is feared.

Often overlooked, technicians are ageing and retiring with little attention to who will replace them, according to Terry Croft, who started his career in 1975 as a technician in the botany department of the University of Sheffield and is now leading efforts to train a new generation.

UK universities are set to lose 25 to 30 per cent of their highly skilled technicians in the next three to five years, largely through retirement, he warned Times Higher Education.

But earlier this month Sheffield launched a new centre to help halt the demise of the technician.

The National Centre for Technical Development and Modernisation will, at least initially, not offer training itself, but act as a “one-stop shop” of experts and resources for universities trying to train up their own technicians, Mr Croft explained. It will in part be staffed by former technicians who have worked “at the coalface”, he said.

Universities can also use the centre to find out where in the country their technicians can gain the next level of training. “If you’ve got a problem at the University of Birmingham involving DNA sequencing, you can find someone at Newcastle who can fix it,” he said. The centre will focus not just on scientific technicians but the arts and humanities as well – those who work in sound studios, for example.

The new centre stems from a Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded project, directed by Mr Croft, that began in 2014.

The project, called “Technical Development and Modernisation”, seeks to understand the looming crisis in technical expertise and to find out what can be done about it.

Previously, universities “had been trying to do this individually”, Mr Croft explained. When asked, some institutions were not even able to list how many technicians they employed, he said.

“There is a lack of knowledge and understanding around the role of the technician – they are the ‘unknown’ professionals of higher education. They lack recognition, often to the extent that they may not be included in higher education strategic plans,” the project website warns.

Sheffield’s new centre faces many difficulties. For a start, lengthy training times mean that it could take years to reverse the decline in technicians.

A university can train up a graduate to work in its student administration office within six months to a year, Mr Croft estimated. Yet it takes five years to become proficient at using an electron microscope and 10 to become an expert, he added.

Unless universities have well-trained technicians, some aspects of science could shudder to a halt. “Very few” scientists are actually themselves able to perform tasks such as DNA sequencing, mass spectrometry and electron microscopy, Mr Croft said, making them reliant on technicians.

One of the problems is that modern experiments require so many pieces of equipment that academics are unable to learn how to use them all, he said.

Another is that new scientific equipment is increasingly complex, making specialist operators more important – a situation Mr Croft likened to that of modern cars.

The classic Series 1 Land Rover, which began rolling off production lines more than 60 years ago, can be fixed by an amateur mechanic with a spanner, Mr Croft said. But a new Land Rover cannot be repaired “unless you’ve got a computer and the software”, he added.

The final challenge is money. University technicians are paid according to the national higher education pay scale, meaning that their salaries range widely, from about £12,000 to £60,000, Mr Croft said. He insisted that the bottom end of that pay scale was “not bad”, given that it was normally accompanied by training.

However, companies often poach university technicians by offering much higher salaries. “We’re now in competition with pharmaceutical companies not just attracting talent but retaining talent,” Mr Croft said.

To counter this, universities need to make it clear to their technicians that they have a defined career path in front of them, he argued.

But the lure of a bigger salary often wins out. “If a US company comes along and offers three times the salary and a company car, there’s nothing you can do about it,” Mr Croft warned.

In numbers

5 – the number of years it takes to become proficient at using an electron microscope

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