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Technicians: it's not all long white coats, says Maggie Berry, managing director of Women in Technology

Maggie Berry, managing director of Women in Technology, talks about changing the perception of technicians and highlighting their importance to the UK economy.

“We don’t all wear white coats and work in a lab” – so said Nikki Cusworth, the winner of the UK’s first Most Inspirational Technician Award last year. Nikki, who is a quality improvement technician at Rolls Royce, won her award for the work she carried out mentoring local school girls who were interested in pursuing technical careers and also introducing primary aged children to fun engineering related projects.

And this is just the sort of role model our young people – and in particular our young women – need to not only highlight the importance of technicians to the economy, but also address the skills shortages that already exist.

Technicians are of critical importance to the UK economy

The Most Inspirational Technician Award was introduced to help tackle this growing problem and the UK government has been vocal in its concern. The Strategic Skills Audit in 2010 described the role of technicians as a “high priority area of critical importance to the economy” and their report shows that employers are increasingly turning to non-EU migrants to fill the positions.

Additionally, research from the Institute of Employment Studies has revealed that the UK has a lower proportion of technicians than its European counterparts and that this is damaging its economic competitiveness.

The government has made no secret of its wish to rebalance our economy so that we have less of a reliance on financial services and more of a focus on production and export. As the Skills Commission says in its recent report entitled Technician and Progression: “We need a workforce equipped with the right level and type of skills if UK companies in design and advanced manufacturing are to remain competitive and contribute to economic growth. We need more technicians.”

As employers work to keep pace with international competition, we will need higher levels of technical skill. However this will only happen if we also look at rebalancing the education and training systems so that more young people are encouraged to study STEM subjects at school and higher education.  

The UK needs 450,000 skilled technicians by 2020

A recent employers’ review by The Technican Council found that UK plc will need 450,000 skilled technicians by 2020. The role of the technician is often stereotyped but technical skills are needed not just in engineering, manufacturing and science but also increasingly in areas such as media, publishing, and service industries. This stereotype is obviously really unhelpful in term of engaging young people – and particularly women - and as Nikki Cusworth says; “it doesn’t even start to reflect the exciting things you can do in this career.”

It is important then that the opportunities for technician careers are highlighted at an early age. Nikki loved metal work at school but couldn’t see how that would help her career and was initially going to leave school at 16 to become a beauty therapist. It was her teachers and careers officers who persuaded her to stay on and who also persuaded her to apply for an apprenticeship at Rolls Royce. She has never looked back and says that it is a role that brings her into contact with people across the company, which is a fact that can be so often overlooked.

“I’m not just turning up, changing everything and leaving my colleagues to get on with it”, she says. “You need people skills to help them through the transition, taking people who are struggling with a new system or piece of kit to a point where they have mastered it and can see the benefits your new approach has brought.”

Making progress

But we are making some progress – recent recommendations from The Skills Commission include making technician training more flexible so that it can be delivered by a range of providers – and throughout an individual’s career.

The Commission is also calling for the profession to be opened up to those with vocational qualifications and for professional bodies to play a greater role in the development of not just qualifications – but also apprenticeships so that we can get to a stage where a 14 year old studying an engineering diploma in school could already be on the first rung of a ladder leading to Chartered Engineer status.

It’s an ambitious plan, but one that is crucial if we are ever to rebalance our economy and become a nation which can compete on a global scale.

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