Technically minded

Reading time: 5 minutes
Although a lot has happened in the last few weeks and months, and we’ve all had to deal with an unprecedented amount of upheaval and uncertainty, we at Bulletin wanted to share this feature we’ve been working on since the beginning of the year in appreciation of our many technicians, and to share the hard work and dedication teams across the University have displayed in their support of the Technician Commitment.

In December 2017, the University signed the Technician Commitment, pledging to support its technicians and ensure visibility, recognition, formalised career development and sustainability.

Since then, numerous teams across the University have worked hard to facilitate huge strides forward in these areas. The Institute of Academic Development, Social Responsibility and Sustainability, and Human Resources Learning and Development teams alongside the Technical Staff Committee and Senior Leaders, including Professor Moira Whyte, Sarah Smith and the Principal, have initiated a range of vital programmes to support our technical community. In recognition of this, the Science Council awarded the University with the Employer Champion Award earlier this year; a huge achievement that shows how far Edinburgh has come. Bulletin spoke to three technicians to find out how their work life has changed since 2017.

Alistair stands among student sculptures.
Alistair Craig is the Technical Learning Services Manager for Edinburgh College of Art (ECA).

“I’ve been a technician at the University for 25 years; the first 15 as a workshop technician, and the last 10 as a technical manager. The wellbeing of my staff is a huge priority for me, making sure they feel supported in their Continuing Professional Development (CPD) projects.

“In my role as a manager I have the ability to help and assist staff in decisions around CPD and it’s about balancing what we need as a business and the wishes of what individuals want to learn. CPD can be time off for courses and qualifications, but doesn’t always have to be; it can be as simple as a visit to a conference, or a manufacturer or to meet and talk with counterparts from other institutions, sharing issues, challenges and achievements.

“Here at ECA we’ve always been considerate of staff development but before the Technician Commitment I wasn’t necessarily doing it in a way that could be measured or recorded. Since the University signed the commitment in 2017 and with the backing of ECA this whole process has become much more formalised. Plus, it’s good to get support from Peter too.

“For me, the commitment has made a huge difference in highlighting what we do – very few people understand our day-to-day work and how vital this work is to the University. Now it’s more recognised that our jobs include learning and teaching processes too and we contribute an integral aspect to the student experience here.

“The biggest change I can see is individuals being proactive about their own development and having more confidence in themselves and their skills. Last year ECA technicians organised a show to exhibit their own artworks, and discuss them with each other. It was a huge success. I think this shows that although managers are important, it’s up to staff themselves to take things forward and now they’re confident that they have the support in place they need to do that.”

Sarah sits in her lab.
Sarah McCafferty is a Research Technician at the Edinburgh Clinical Research Facility.

“As a research technician within the Genetics Core of the Edinburgh Clinical Research Facility my role primarily involves extracting DNA and RNA from a range of sample types for biobanking or further genomic investigation. Over my time in this post, my role has really grown. I felt like I was gaining huge amounts of knowledge and experience but these skills were not well recognised outside of other life science professionals. Often technical roles can be poorly understood, especially by those who don’t work directly with us. This is exacerbated by the diverse range of roles technicians perform, but their work is essential to the University.

“Through the Social Responsibility and Sustainability team I learned about the Science Council’s professional registration scheme, and this seemed like an amazing opportunity to have my skills externally recognised, and validate all the knowledge and experience I have gained in this post.

“As a member of the University’s Technician Steering Committee I thought that we should lead by example and become professionally registered ourselves where possible. Then we could assist and offer authentic advice to those thinking of applying.

“Despite some difficulties getting started, I felt really supported in completing my application once I got stuck in to the process thanks to the encouragement of my management team and other wonderful colleagues. As there were a group of us from within the genetics core applying in a similar timeframe it was often really helpful to chat over applications, as they can see your work from a different perspective. It really helped that the University provided funding for the first year of registration too.

“There are so many benefits of this process for the wider community including external recognition for the unique skills and expertise this group of staff possess, and an opportunity to build confidence by reflecting on skills and experiences. Professional registration shows a clear commitment to professional development, which may be helpful when looking for a promotion or new roles, and gives applicants access to wider networks beyond the University, through your licensing body and the science council itself. And because there are three levels of accreditation this is a great scheme for technical staff at all career levels.”

Stuart sits at a desk surrounded by scientific equipment.
Stuart Martin is a Wet Laboratory Support Technician in the School of Engineering.

“There has been a bit of concern amongst technicians about the sustainability of our jobs and the work that we do due to the lack of visibility around our roles. Since the University signed the commitment, a new foundation apprentice scheme has been put in place, inviting senior school students to come and learn from Technicians as part of their Highers work.

“Given that so many technical staff are approaching retirement, the Foundation Apprentice Science Course provides a unique opportunity for labs to train senior school students for entry level positions that may imminently arise. Often a Foundation Apprentice can lead into a Modern Apprenticeship which bolsters the technical service we offer to the school by bringing in new talent at entry level.

“We decided to try hosting a Foundation Apprentice here in the School of Engineering within our chemical and biological labs. It has been a hugely positive experience for the staff in a mentoring context and we have all enjoyed teaching her about the complexity of our technical roles and supporting her to learn basic laboratory skills.

“The apprentice has mostly been shadowing our technical staff but we also created some simple analytical tasks for her to complete to meet the prescribed learning outcomes she requires to secure the vocational qualification. For example, she has learned the theory behind chromatographic and spectroscopic analytical techniques and how they are used in student research, mammalian cell culture principles and aseptic techniques.

“A Foundation Apprenticeship is a valuable opportunity for a young person to explore career options early in their lives, so that they have a chance to start matching up what they like to do, their passions, and their talents with a career. It is an exciting way of gaining skills and qualifications and allows the apprentice to start a career without having to study full-time. There are also huge benefits for the technician who mentors and coaches the apprentice in a professional development and motivational context.”

Find out more about support for technicians.

Photography: Sam Sills