Technicians and their work are vital to the research and teaching work undertaken within universities, but they have become unsung heroes. Andrew Arnott explains how a dedicated group is now trying to change that at University of Edinburgh.

#TechniciansMakeItHappen. This is the hashtag of an awareness raising campaign run by the Gatsby Foundation and the Science Council aiming to improve recognition and appreciation of technicians and associated technical staff roles within universities.

A lab technician inspects a forensic sample

Who to do we mean when we talk about ‘technicians’? This is a surprisingly hard question to answer, and to a certain extent it’s a case of self-identification. There are pretty much as many different job titles as there are technicians. Many work in scientific research and teaching, others work in the arts within various specialist workshops. This article is too short to state all the different types of technicians we have, but just bear in mind that it is likely that you know and work with technicians regularly.

Technicians enjoy many aspects of their roles including problem solving, learning new skills, the variety of work, working with students and as part of research teams. However, whilst there are many positive aspects to technical roles there are also issues for these roles that are faced widely across the sector. These include; a lack of public and private recognition of the importance of technicians, leading to a lack of support and not feeling like a valued part of the institution; lack of investment, time and encouragement for continued professional development (CPD) or registration with professional bodies; a lack of understanding among managers of the skills and training required by technicians; and no clear career progression pathways.

Many technicians feel their skills are under-valued by other staff

All of this has meant that a career as a technician at a university is not as attractive as it should be, leading to problems with talent attraction and retention, succession planning for retirement of an ageing workforce, threatening business continuity. These issues are by no means isolated to the University of Edinburgh, but are replicated across the sector. Some institutions are ahead of us in taking action on this, and we can learn from their successes.

The Technicians’ Support Steering Group (TSSG) was formed in November 2016 with support from the People Committee and its chair, Professor Jane Norman (VP for People and Culture). The TSSG is comprised of a mixed group of individuals including many technicians/technical managers as well as representatives from HR, the Institute for Academic Development (IAD) and the Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability (SRS). We recognise that our technical staff are highly important to the fundamental success of the University of Edinburgh (notably in student experience and delivery of research, influencing the results of the Teaching Excellent Framework and Research Excellence Framework), and that changes should be made to address a number of issues faced by technical staff.

This steering group has already started to develop a list of actions to address issues and opportunities around technical staff CPD and engagement. It is our role to provide advice, guidance and recommendations to People Committee, in relation to CPD and engagement of technical staff.  This group will also act as a conduit for identifying common issues and providing advice and information to other committees (e.g. Combined Joint consultation and Negotiations Committee, People Committee, or University Court).

Terry Croft (MBE)

To help us identify our strengths and weaknesses, and to stimulate productive discussion on the best way forward, Terry Croft (MBE) visited the University of Edinburgh in late July to run a workshop. Terry is based at the University of Sheffield and is a former university technician who is now Director of the Technical Development and Modernisation team, and its HEFCE funded Catalyst Project “Development & Embedding of Career Pathways for Technicians across the Higher Education Sector”. This three year project is about to publish its conclusions and a support tool, and so it was a prime time for us to invite Terry up to share his knowledge. Overall it seems that, although we have a long way to go, we are moving in the right direction, which was heartening to hear.

So what are we doing?

  • Developing a university-wide technicians’ email list so that we can alert technicians to upcoming events, training, professional development, awards, etc.
  • Developing a webpage which will be hosted on the Institute for Academic Development (IAD) website which we hope will clearly show the various important skills and services provided by the technician community, as well as provide a source of information on relevant news, training, conferences, CPD, mentoring, and professional registration opportunities.
  • Broadening networks and communication across Edinburgh’s technical staff community, using social media, to link together and draw attention to some of the local social groups which already exist or are being set-up.
  • Setting up a twitter account for “UoE technicians”

The University of Edinburgh is also a member of the HEaTED network for technical staff, providing reduced rate access to a whole host of CPD resources created specifically for technicians, along with free attendance at regional network meetings.

All these activities will help to address the issues and opportunities around CPD and community-building for technicians. The members of the TSSG are all voluntary and give their time willingly, many have even attended meetings during their own holidays, such is the motivation for change in this area.

If you want to get involved, please contact Andrew Arnott at Andrew.arnott@ed.ac.uk.  Alternatively, make a note of our work and participate where you can.

Without our technical staff, much of what the University does simply wouldn’t be possible, so why not show the technical staff you work with that you appreciate them and go and say, ‘thanks’! And if you are one of our technical staff, well done, keep ‘making it happen’ and we hope to see you at the next TSSG or HEaTED Network event.

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