Overcoming Technical Staff Shortages with Staff Development

A talent pipeline for the future was built using an integrated programme of skills mapping, technical training schemes and mentoring. It was a collaboration between the University of Sheffield and the Institute of Science and Technology (IST).  This project won a People Analytics Planning Society Highly Commended Award.

The training programme incorporates three different strands – a two year apprenticeship, a technical trainee programme and an accelerated training programme for graduates.   The IST has wide experience in pastoral care and mentoring, understands the technical community at large and has promoted the need for early professional development and clear career pathways so the partnership has clear benefits for all concerned. The IST also works with other Universities to assess the technical skills gap and related issues to aid succession planning. 

“Concerns have been raised for the past decade about the steadily rising average age of technical staff, leading to fears that impending mass retirements will leave Universities with a debilitating shortage of expertise”, noted a Times Higher Education  article. 

What was the rationale?

At the University of Sheffield, a third of our technical staff will be at or beyond normal retirement age within a decade, which represents a significant loss of intellectual capital. It is also recognised that technical staff have a breadth and depth of skills in diverse areas and that there is a need to capture this information in a systematic way. By doing so, understanding across the institution of the technical and scientific skills and knowledge which can be accessed will be enhanced. Specialist roles are increasingly hard to fill and there is a need to develop the careers of existing staff through training and mentoring. 

Traditionally there have been two main routes into a technical career (i) recruiting those who have had a previous technical career either in HE or other educational settings and (ii) recruitment of those qualified to degree or doctorate level, each with their own set of issues and challenges.  For example, graduates often don’t have the practical skills such as making up their own solutions as there is most focus on the academic side of experiments. This means that academic staff may lose up to six months trying to train up a new recruit. 

Technicians are diverse in terms of age, disability and ethnicity but only one third of technicians in HE are female. One of the aims of the University of Sheffield/IST scheme is to deliver alternative entry routes into a career in science, and to draw talent and expertise from non-traditional areas. 

In response to the challenge of youth unemployment the Government announced a Youth Contract to help young people into work. As part of the City Deal for Sheffield there has been a public commitment to increasing the number of Apprenticeship places available within Sheffield. 

The sustained provision of a highly skilled technical workforce has a major influence on, and has the ability to enhance, the student experience in both learning and teaching, and in terms of exposure to the research environment. This project directly feeds in to the University’s strategic plan to deliver an excellent service to students and our ambition to attract the best students from the home and overseas market and to deliver world class research. 

The collaboration with the IST also aims to help Universities to adapt to the new financial environment by providing world class support to learning and teaching, and research with a lean and highly skilled workforce. The University takes our responsibilities as an educational establishment seriously and this scheme will develop skills to help the Higher Education sector more widely, and to contribute to local, regional and national economic growth. 

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield recently quoted “The future vitality of higher education in the UK will depend on the creative abilities of our technical staff. They are the people at the cutting edge of the research and teaching that drive so much of the innovation we need. They are often the unsung heroes of the advances in Science, Engineering and Medicine. There are few things more important to us than ensuring this talent is properly nurtured and sustained by our Universities and Colleges”. 

The Technical Development Programme is therefore true succession planning, strongly aligned to business and operational needs.

What was the methodology?

The Faculty of Science, in partnership with the IST has launched Professional Technical Careers, demonstrating three schemes to help individuals enter into a professional technical career or to get their technical career to the next level. This commenced with the recruitment of 6 apprentices in 2012/13. There is also a plan to launch a Technical Graduate Entry Scheme by 2014.  

The Faculty of Engineering originally planned to recruit 3 technical trainees per academic year for 3 years, commencing in 2011/12 (9 in total) and for the trainees training, progress and development to be managed and assessed at a faculty level by a Faculty Trainee Technician Programme Manager, working in collaboration with faculty departmental technical managers. In reality the Faculty recruited 5 trainees in the first year, and 2 in the second. All these schemes are coordinated through the overarching University of Sheffield Technical Development Programme. 

The Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) also developed a recruitment strategy for how to progress with existing apprentices, a recruitment strategy for recruiting apprentices and is looking at new apprentice frameworks such as for Welding Technicians in the Nuclear AMRC. In addition, the AMRC Training Centre is currently growing internal capacity with a view to being able to deliver the apprenticeship framework to other employers. 

A small University project group with a Business Director and HR Lead have drawn in expertise from across the University to share best practice and learning and to consider how to address ongoing skills gaps in the technical area. Consideration is also being given to how to apply the benefits of the scheme to non-technical areas. 

Engaging stakeholders

The project was initially driven by a partnership between the Faculties of Science and Engineering and HR and is now being rolled out further. A project group representing Faculties and Professional Services was set up to seek the views of all interested stakeholders. There is buy-in to the project at all levels within the University with senior level endorsement from the University Executive Board, Faculty Executive Boards and Professional Services Executive, where presentations have been delivered. In addition relevant groups and individuals from across the University have been invited to a series of briefings, seminars, drop-in sessions and registration events. 

A focused and co-ordinated communications and engagement strategy has led to regular communications taking place through the University’s web pages and dedicated web pages have been set up for those staff taking part in the scheme. Mentoring programmes are also underway for technical apprentices and staff and a handbook is currently under development. By providing greater opportunities for the relevant staff to network this has led to better understanding of the variety of technical careers and development opportunities across the organisation. 

As the project is clearly aligned to business, economic and student needs, the communications and engagement strategy has been highly effective. The IST has also provided materials and software to underpin these schemes. The more recent creation of the Apprentices project group has helped to ensure that buy-in and ownership of this area is shared across the University. This sharing of knowledge has meant that we have been careful not to end up with ‘silo’ schemes and that best practice can be shared across the institution. In addition, now that there is greater understanding of the scheme, staff can understand and articulate the benefits of engagement and are able to promote it to others, based on personal experience. 

How difficult was it to implement?

The project started with a small nucleus in two Faculties – Science and Engineering. By taking the decision to implement only where there was full engagement and buy-in the scheme was immediately successful and both of these Faculties were highly aware of the pressing need to address the skills shortage of technical expertise. In the two Faculties, technical apprenticeship/trainee schemes have now been running for between one and three years. The age profile of the majority of existing technicians in these Faculties has meant that career pathways are visible and are becoming available for trainees who have successfully progressed through one of the schemes, providing an alternative entry route into a scientific career. 

The scheme has also had endorsement at senior levels within the University. It has been driven by a senior member of Professional staff who has an influential position externally which has helped to give the scheme credibility. 

The scheme has not been difficult to implement as the engagement with stakeholders and the assessment of need was made in detail in advance of implementation. The HR role has been to ensure that the right resource is in place and deployed effectively to help deliver the desired outcomes.

Important lessons were learnt

The project has been delivered through careful project management with key review points. Having a scheme that is flexible enough to allow different entry routes has meant that the University has been able to be adaptable, ensuring that talent is recognised at an early stage and that those staff showing promise have been able to progress rapidly. 

The Trainee Technician Programme is continuously improving and an annual review of the Engineering scheme, for example, allows the Faculty to determine if it remains fit for purpose and whether the numbers recruited address true skills gaps. The planned growth of the Faculty of Engineering has also influenced decisions about how to run the Trainee Technician programme to match real needs. 

We have also learnt that the different cohorts (apprenticeship, trainee, graduate) require a different approach in terms of mentoring, learning and reflection. The pastoral care requirements for those on the apprenticeship programme is greater than those entering at a higher level and we have now address this to ensure that those individuals on the scheme have a clear idea of the support available to them, and the expectations associated with a full time role. 

Line managing or supervising an apprentice or trainee requires a significant investment in time and can produce its own challenges, particularly if the young person is a school leaver. Providing support for line managers at recruitment, assisting with induction and then providing a forum for on-going sharing of experiences assists in this important role. There is also a wider benefit in the selection of appropriate line managers for apprentices. This role provides an excellent development opportunity for existing staff to enhance their skills and experience. Identification of aspiring managers who can, with support, undertake the supervision of an apprentice fits with the University’s talent management agenda. 

The focus of the programme has been to ensure that all aspects are operating as efficiently as possible and has been adapted to ensure that it is fit for purpose and can operate across Faculty boundaries.

What was the impact?

The required impact of the programme was considered at the planning stage, looking at the likely turnover of technical staff and identifying skills gaps across the different areas. This has meant that the Faculties have been able to recruit into the different levels of the scheme in a steady manner, ensuring that succession planning is under way and that trainees are competent and able to fill vacancies as and when these arise. To date, over 30 individuals have either completed or are progressing through the scheme. 

The reluctance from individual staff to engage with the scheme has also changed over time, as they have had exposure to the new recruits and are able to experience their passion and enthusiasm for learning. For some technical staff who have worked in small teams for a number of years the opportunity to become involved in a wider initiative has been welcomed. 

Working in partnership with the IST, via the Chair of the IST and the Director of Technical Development and Modernisation, the National Professional Registration Scheme for Technical staff has also been piloted at the University. This system allows technical staff to demonstrate their professional technical competence in a widely recognised manner. Over 20 staff have registered for the scheme during the University of Sheffield pilot.

The project provides clear pathways for succession planning for specialist technical roles, and workforce planning more generally. 1.5 million SET job opportunities will be created by 2020, with nearly a third of these in higher skilled technical roles. Higher levels of skill and professionalism are required by employers to keep pace with international competition. 

The University of Sheffield’s Technical Development Programme is a long term, sustainable project to ensure that the technical skills shortage is addressed in a realistic manner, and that Higher Education does not find itself in the same situation in the future. 

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