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Science Technicians Workforce - update August 2019

In May 2017, an expert advice report on the Science Technicians Workforce was released. Two years later, what impacts are discernible? This update by Royal Society Te Apārangi outlines developments in the different education and research sectors since the report was released.

Institutes of Technology and Polytechnic (ITP) sector

The 2017 Science Technicians Workforce study had found that the Level 6 Diploma of Applied Science was fit-for-purpose, but the numbers of graduates is too low. A national network of provision for this qualification was proposed as the primary development route for technicians entering industrial or service roles.

It is positive that the concept of nationally-coordinated provision of qualifications designed to meet employer needs is a cornerstone of the 2019 Review of Vocational Education (RoVE). Even without that review, several ITPs already have in place a cooperative delivery arrangement (STEM NZ) for the Diploma, broadly in line with the panel recommendations. However the ITP sector has suffered significant loss of enrolments across all programmes, and the viability of offerings for small student cohorts at many ITPs is low. Hence there is still considerable cause for concern.

If the changes being made from the RoVE succeed, they will reverse the general decline in ITP enrolments. Then, if science gets its fair share of enrolments, a strongly supported Level 6 science technician qualification, meeting the needs of industry and service organisations, may slowly become a reality.

University sector

The study has led several universities to re-think their BSc programmes, and the extent to which laboratory practice is included. Whilst the Society is not aware that a minor in laboratory practice within the BSc has been implemented by any university, there is evidence that the university sector has, to an extent, re-thought the development of technical aptitude within science programmes. 

Research organisations

The work of the panel has proven useful to Crown Research Institutes and independent research organisations.  It contributed to, and helped inform, attention to this area of capability within the workforce, including issues such as internal development of career pathways and recognition for technicians.  This is particularly important as technician numbers relative to researcher numbers in Crown Research Institutes, overall, have slowly risen, reversing the previous trend.

Callaghan Innovation’s Measurement Standards Laboratory has taken a new initiative through a science technician apprenticeship route. The RoVE may open up the potential for further such possibilities.

Career information

Careers New Zealand did update its information on science technician roles using information from the study.  However, no specific promotion campaign has been launched.  Sadly, the E2E programme seeking to increase engineering students in ITPs led to significant increases in university rather than ITP enrolments, so a similar programme for science enrolments in the ITP sector may not be the answer.

Other developments

The Association for Tertiary Education Management ATEM is holding an Inaugural Technicians Symposium in Wellington in October 2019 and wishes to hold a panel discussion on the “Professional Development for Technicians: Opportunities and Gaps”, as a result of the Science Technician Workforce Report. The panel will be chaired by Professor Jim Johnston and will comprise members of the Society's Expert Panel together with persons from the ITP and university sectors.

Closing comment

Science technician education has suffered badly from the substantive decline in ITP enrolments generally. If there is a reversal of that trend, then the better matching of exit skills of graduates from tertiary education to the actual roles in industry and the service sector may slowly occur. However, the Science Technician Workforce Report improved understanding of the issues and has been beneficial in a number of other ways.