Whereas academic scientists too often only think in terms of producing the next generation of academic scientists like them, the reality is many would-be PIs would be lost without the technicians who keep the equipment running, train newcomers and generally make sure the lab is in a fit condition for work. They aren’t always visible, but they are crucial in many areas. Last week an article appeared in the THE by Mike Hughes, the teaching laboratories manager in the department of chemistry at the University of Manchester, challenging universities to do more to hire technicians from their local area. I am all in favour of this, and I know Cambridge does use the apprenticeship route to facilitate this, but all the issues I mentioned recently about the challenges of the overheating economy definitely acts in opposition to this desire: Manchester may have reasonable transport infrastructure to bring a technical workforce into the university, but Cambridge is less fortunate in this respect, and the places a technician can afford to live may be those from which it is impossibly hard to travel to the University.

The importance of technicians – in universities or, equally, in many branches of industry – is not going to go away, yet the supply is falling, as a recent Royal Society report highlighted. The TALENT project is currently looking in much more detail specifically at the technical workforce in universities. Sadly, there is a lack of awareness in schools, not least due to the somewhat patchy careers advice teenagers are able to access following cutbacks in provision, about what a technician role looks like, or what qualifications might be useful for those not contemplating a degree. As the Government considers its funding decisions around FE and HE, it would be helpful if they would consider a joined-up approach instead of pitting the one against the other when money is being carved up. However, this would require different government departments to talk to each other more than all the evidence indicates is likely to occur.

As we face a post-Brexit world and, hopefully, a post-pandemic world, the UK still faces the ‘productivity paradox’ it has been facing since the 2008 crash. We need to think hard about adult upskilling as well as school leavers. The Government’s plans for lifelong learning are all very well, but they need cash and they need to be coherent. That BEIS and the Department of Education don’t comfortably work together – something I saw for myself ten years ago, something that still applies, as two recent conversations with those at the sharp end have confirmed – is a major worry. The education system needs to run smoothly from early years education (which sets the scene for so much of what happens to the individual in later life and is anyhow underfunded), through secondary school and on to whatever comes next, be it a degree or not.

Yet, when it comes to adult upskilling, what is needed is also likely to be somewhat regionally dependent, according to what industries once were present or are currently trying to bed in. Clearly that makes it harder for top-down, one-size-fits-all policies from Whitehall to be effective, but the promise of new funds to allow more people to access higher level technical skills is to be welcome.  Throwing away the impossibility of accessing funding for an equivalent or higher level qualification (ELQ) would be an important measure too. It ought to be possible to retrain in these areas if one’s first foray led nowhere, for whatever reason.

However, the gulf between the rhetoric of white papers and government pronouncements and what works on the ground in any given area, can be huge. Trying to bring together employers, funding and those who might deliver the skills’ training, is no mean challenge. It is interesting to note that in the USA, since these matters are left to individual states, there is the possibility of many experiments in different localities, each still with large populations, still potentially very heterogeneous. Experimentation is clearly proceeding apace.  This is a point underlying the recent webinar involving the University’s Institute for Manufacturing and the authors of the book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, William B Bonvillian and Sanjay E Sarma, two MIT professors. There are potentially 51 states which can try (at least) 51 experiments to suit their particular structures and local issues, something not quite so easy to do with England’s educational oversight and funding arrangements. Nevertheless, a state is still a huge and disparate region to find a single solution for.

If I turn specifically to the East of England’s challenges, I discussed a couple of posts ago, it is worth pulling out the 2018 Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Independent Economic Report. This report highlights the actions of a Chatteris based manufacturing company, Stainless Metalcraft Ltd, an old established manufacturing company, that now specialises in metal-working for advanced technologies, such as the Large Hadron Collider. It has succeeded as a hi-tech manufacturing firm in the middle of the fens, absolutely not in a cluster of similar firms or a science park. The answer, according to the report,

“lies in the strength of the company’s training programmes. Just under half of the company’s 150 employees have been through its apprenticeship training programme, which has been recognised as one of the top 100 apprenticeships on offer in the UK.”

This particular company may be thought of as comparable to the successful suite of, often family-run and German-based, Mittelstand companies, which also invest heavily in training and have survived over decades despite remaining relatively small. An interesting comparison between such companies and some UK counterparts can be found in the book by Tom Brown, Tragedy and Challenge, based on his experiences as a senior manager of engineering companies in different countries. Of one in the Tyrol he says

“Although it was a small company there was a full-time trainer, and so not only were raw recruits trained rigorously, but also the experienced press setters and other skilled employees were regularly retrained and had their skills updated.”

I fear that would not be common in the UK.

Stainless Metalcraft may be a successful ‘experiment’ of one – and key questions about the experiment must be where are some of the classroom-based activities for these apprenticeships occurring, and how much interplay is there between company and educational establishment in ensuring these activities are effective – but it is worth thinking what it may indicate for other places outside knowledge-intensive clusters. Education should be as evidence- and data-driven as any other sphere of activity. If it works for them in Chatteris, why not something similar in Cromer or Skegness, Wisbech or Dudley? Each will have their own specific and local issues to address, and with greater or smaller distances to cover to their nearest further education college. Nevertheless, so much will reside in the willingness of a firm to invest in training, and the ability to fund this. I would like to think the government may facilitate the funding aspect at least, through its new plans.

So, if we are to move forward towards the hyped ‘global Britain’, if our workforce – denuded of many skilled pairs of hands as Brexit bites – is to deliver enhanced productivity and economic growth, we need to join up many aspects of our education and training so much better than we manage currently. We need all relevant parts of government to speak to each other, to fund adult upskilling as well as training for those coming straight out of school, in straightforward ways that everyone can understand. And we need companies, whatever their size, to believe that  (re)training really can make a difference to their own bottom line and their locality.

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