The Value of Technicians
Technicians are the linchpins of the UK economy. They will be integral to overcoming some of the great challenges of the coming years and decades – from updating our transport infrastructure and local internet access, to securing the future of our energy supply.
Technicians work alongside scientists and engineers throughout many of the high-growth industries, from food and health to aerospace and construction. The average technician will work as part of a team, be highly skilled (to around Level 3 or 4), and will apply their knowledge of STEM in a practical setting. Typically, technicians will be responsible for overseeing production and solving any practical problems that arise in the workplace, but many also work in research, and will often help their businesses to develop new products and processes.
Currently, over 1.5 million technicians are employed in the UK. The majority of these technicians are employed in engineering roles but there are also significant numbers working in science, health and technology. However, an aging workforce means that 50,000 of our best technicians are retiring every year, and forecasts show we will need as many as 700,000 more technicians in the next decade to meet demand from employers.
Working as a technician is a highly-varied and rewarding role with good levels of pay and opportunities for career progression. But the best technician jobs do not make it on to the radar of most young people. As a result, large numbers of young people are leaving school without the qualifications employers look for when recruiting technicians. The lack of good career guidance in schools and colleges does not help, but this is also symptomatic of a wider, cultural problem – for decades, government and society at large have overlooked how important technicians are to the economy.
At Gatsby, working in partnership with a range of stakeholders, we are trying to correct some of these long-standing problems. We are supporting projects and ideas that aim to provide a steady stream of new technicians into the labour market, and open up technician occupations to all young people as they progress through the education system.
We believe that a robust set of professional registers for technicians will help to give technician occupations the status they deserve. Visit the Professional Registration for Technicians programme page for full details on this important area of our work.
If you would like more information about our work supporting technicians, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is difficult to reach consensus on the absolute number of technicians in the UK as this requires a shared definition of “technician” according to occupational role and educational background. Gatsby has commissioned a number of reports to try and get a better picture of the role that technicians play in the workforce.
In 2014, TBR used labour force data to look at what proportion of STEM workers are technicians. Their definition of STEM workers included finance and health with the result that they concluded that there are over 2 million STEM technicians, over 7% of the UK workforce. They noted that 75% of the technician workforce is male, and that technicians are most frequently employed within SMEs, with over 55% of technicians based in businesses employing fewer than 250 employees. Technicians are generally paid more than the non-STEM average.
In 2012, Geoff Mason of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research concluded that there are currently just over 1.5 million SET (science, engineering and technology) technicians in employment in the UK, about 30% of whom are in associate professional occupations while 70% are in skilled trades occupations.
His report finds that in the last 20 years the mix of occupations and qualifications in SET sectors has changed greatly in response to the increased supply of university graduates and the departure of many low-qualified persons from the workforce.
However, there is now evidence that some SET employers may now be starting to re-evaluate their present mix of graduate and intermediate-level personnel in SET technician jobs. A key reason for this is that most new graduate recruits have acquired their skills and knowledge primarily through classroom study rather than through employment-based training. Thus they tend to lack the practical skills and experience, problem-solving skills and commercial understanding that are best acquired through employment-based training such as apprenticeships. In this context, the challenge for many SET employers is to strike a balance between rising skill demands in SET technician jobs and the continued need for practical skills and experience.
In 2010, Gatsby supported the Institute of Employment Studies (IES) to carry out a review of the Labour Force Survey to understand the size of the UK’s technician workforce in comparison to some of our European competitors. The IES found the UK has a lower proportion of technicians than our European competitors, particularly at the intermediate skills levels. The IES carried out further comparative work and concluded there was evidence that the UK’s relative lack of technicians damages our economic competitiveness.
These findings are particularly noteworthy when set alongside other analysis of the UK workforce. After carrying out the National Strategic Skills Audit, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills noted that "one of the most striking themes to emerge from the Audit is the growing importance of technicians, especially in specialist STEM areas – workers with the ability to apply an in-depth understanding of a particular field in a practical setting.
Skilled non-graduates in technician roles are critical to the effective and efficient running of healthcare services. Many will use their knowledge of science while carrying out their work, but perhaps the most important skills required in their roles are interpersonal. As a result, it has been very difficult to understand whether the registration framework Gatsby is helping to develop in science,engineering and IT will be appropriate for the health sector.
Gatsby commissioned teams from the University of Southampton and the Institute of Education, London, to undertake research to try and understand the role of technicians in the health service. The research, now completed, has:
- mapped the current and evolving status of technician posts within the health sector, including how the term technician is applied within different professional and occupational strands of the sector;
- mapped the education and training of workers at technician level in a range of health-related occupations and consider how this fits with recent workforce reforms;
- considered the drivers, barriers and opportunities for developing the technician role and registration within the health sector;
- explored the views of key stakeholders including professional bodies, employers, education providers, and technicians in a sub-set of contrasting health occupations.
The final report of the research is available here.
Gatsby commissioned Paul Lewis and Howard Gospel to research the role, skills and supply of technicians working in universities. They carried out interviews with various sector-level organisations and staff at 45 departments from 18 universities working in chemistry, engineering, physics and the biological sciences.
The final report of their research describes how there are a variety of different kinds of laboratory and engineering workshop technicians in our universities. Some, especially in post-1992 universities, focus on supporting teaching. Others support research, whether by working in laboratories, operating various analytical facilities, or designing and building experimental equipment and apparatus. A third group helps to sustain the general infrastructure that underpins teaching and research. The precise skills of the technical workforce vary according to the particular roles under consideration.
There are concerns that the declining number of technicians employed by universities is affecting the ability of departments to manage the practical loads imposed by teaching and research. Furthermore, about half of the technicians in chemistry, engineering and physics departments in the sample are due to retire within the next 15 years.
Building on this research, Gatsby is supporting HEaTED (Higher Education and Technicians Education and Development) to build a UK-wide community of higher education technicians and create resources for their training and development.
HEaTED provides its members with access to:
- Subsidised specialist courses and seminars for the Higher Education technical community nationally and regionally;
- An annual UK conference for technical specialists, staff developers and HR professionals;
- An online personal development resource centre;
- An online community of technicians through discussion forums;
- An accredited continuing professional development award;
- A skills database highlighting information on providers of technical training and development;
- An information service to support institutional workforce planning; A mentoring facility tailored specifically for technical, specialist and managerial staff.
As well as looking at data from labour force surveys, Gatsby commissioned Paul Lewis from King’s College to examine how employers in 5 key sectors of the UK economy use, acquire, and train their technicians. His research focussed on the responsibilities, skills, and training of technicians in sectors that have been identified both by government and also by sector-level organizations as ‘strategically important’ in the sense that they will have to make a major contribution to growth in employment, productivity and output. The sectors are as follows (click to see the report):
The research highlights the critical role that technicians, with their technical knowledge and practical nous, play in these sectors. He also found that across all of the sectors there are very significant difficulties in replacing an aging technician workforce and as a result many employers are turning to apprenticeships as a way of finding these skills.
The need for newly qualified technicians has never been greater. The UK currently struggles to replace those retiring each year, let alone fill the new opportunities opening up to meet the demand of employers. The pathways to becoming a technician are often confusing and young people are not aware of the tens of thousands of great technician jobs that could be open to them.
To date, our efforts on raising the profile of technicians have focussed on promoting professional registration and highlighting the critical shortage of technicians in key sectors of the workforce. We have had some success and there is undoubtedly a growing recognition of the importance of technicians and understanding that many of the UK’s current skills shortages are at the technician level. However, our long-term ambitions for a strong and aspirational technician class require the contributions that technicians make to the UK economy to be much better understood and valued by society at large. To address this, we are launching a national technician campaign – Technicians Make it Happen.
The multi-channel campaign aims to raise awareness and perceptions of the role technicians play in driving the UK economy, and encourage and educate young people with a talent for STEM subjects, their teachers and parents, to consider the benefits of a career as a technician. The stars of this campaign are the technicians themselves – we want to put them in the spotlight. Over the next two years we will be creating a series of ‘technician stories’, that we can use as a basis to promote and celebrate the skills and achievements of technicians across the UK.
These stories will be short, inspiring case studies of successful people who are forging interesting careers as technicians. They will be interviewed and photographed, both in portrait and within their working environment. The best of these stories will form the centrepiece of our campaign and will be featured on the Technicians Make it Happen website, as well as across social media and at events and exhibitions across the country. Find out more at www.technicians.org.uk.
Professional Registration for Technicians
We believe that a robust set of professional registers for technicians will help to give technician occupations the status they deserve.
Apprenticeships are an excellent way to train the next generation of technicians. That’s why we are working with our partners to help increase the quantity and quality of STEM apprenticeships in the UK.
Providing Technical Education
The UK has a well-documented shortage of STEM technicians to satisfy demand for both new and replacement roles. Technical education offers young people a clear route from school into rewarding technician occupations, and progression to higher education for those who wish to do so.