I heart technicians

1 August 2012

I am a big fan of the television chef Jamie Oliver. About five years ago, he began campaigning to improve the quality of school dinners. The kitchen staff at many UK schools have been de-skilled to the point where they simply warm up frozen fast food, and the resulting lunch is unappetizing and unhealthful. He encouraged them to cook lunch from fresh ingredients. He pressurised local and even national government to allocate more resources to school dinners. And the TV crew that followed him around brought the story to parents like me.

A UK charitable organisation has taken on an ambitious project to help a group of low-status workers, not the 'dinner ladies', as they are called here, but a similar kind of worker. "The technician workforce in this country is only weakly professionalised, and there is little sense of status attached to technician roles," says the charitable Gatsby organisation, whose hospitality (and lunch) I enjoyed in London last month.

The cream of the crop of young people interested in science and engineering slip relatively easily from university into industry, where "there is a strong tradition of professional registration at chartered level, and registration confers a high degree of status within the profession and in society more widely."

But the benefits of this system may not trickle down so well for technicians who are not so academic and who are better suited to vocational training and employment. Gatsby wants to change their lot by launching new vocational registers, and renewing interest in current registration schemes. At the event, the Science Council launched RSci and RSciTech registrations, and testimonials of their benefits were had from a couple of Sizewell B chemistry apprentices. (Its operator, EDF, also runs a highly-structured, four-year programme for engineering apprentices).

Earlier this year, a government-industry body established a new brand, The Professional Technician, with a slogan and a website, that unites many trade registers. New recruits have to join a professional institution to be able to register; they have to sign up to a code of conduct. The onus is on them to demonstrate their competence, and to keep it up to date. In return, they gain a badge, and also perhaps a ladder to further professional development.

I can imagine a plausible scenario in which registration does indeed help improve the professionalism of technicians. Initial PR campaigns attract the most ambitious technicians to sign up for registration; their desire for self-promotion pushes them through the paperwork. The disparity in quality between this self-selected group and the total pool of technicians eventually impresses employers to believe in the brand, which in turn encourages more technicians to join.

The problem with the theory is that both ends of this process have to happen at the same time. Technicians need good reasons to bother to register; employers need good reasons to treat registered technicians preferentially. Without employer interest, technicians will not sign up; without registered techs providing some workplace advantage, employers won’t be interested.

Historical evidence of how this process actually plays out is not encouraging. For 30 years, the EngTech registration has been available for professional engineers who have been through an apprenticeship, or who have other formal or informal qualifications. Today, only about 1-2% (14,000) of them working today have signed up, according to the Engineering Council.

So why isn't it higher? Gatsby is trying to figure that out. But based on the comments of a few people in an afternoon workshop (an extremely unrepresentative sample, I know), the scheme does not do enough for business. One employer in the session said that registration simply would not be a determining factor in choosing between two equal candidates; experience was more important.

Jamie Oliver is such compelling watching because he sets a goal and pursues it by persuading stakeholders at every level to join in. He is not only the face but also the lynchpin of the campaign. This is the power of one tireless celebrity.

A campaign to re-cast relationships between types of industry stakeholders depends on the cost-benefit analysis that each party will have to make. In this case, I don’t think that the technician registration programme will take off until industry believes that it will make better employees.

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This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of Nuclear Engineering International

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