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Published 31 May 2017

Training science technicians that are ready for the future

Too many graduates applying for science technician roles require significant on the job training as they lack technical aptitude and transferable practical skills, according to a report released today by an expert panel convened by the Royal Society Te Apārangi.

The report examines concerns raised from within the science sector about the technician workforce. It recommends a new approach to education for these roles.

“A strong resilient technician workforce is vital for a growing and increasingly technologically sophisticated economy. But those holding science degrees often need significant on-the-job training to overcome their deficit of practical skills,” says panel chair, Professor Jim Johnston.

The panel found “there is a significant mismatch between the knowledge and skills acquired through tertiary education to those needed in employment. The technical aptitude and transferable practical skills that employers are looking for in job applicants are now seriously lacking.”

“Science technicians bring a wealth of practical skills to the business and science sectors, yet there is now significant mismatch between the knowledge and skills acquired through tertiary education to those needed in employment.”

After consulting widely with employers, science organisations and tertiary providers, the panel concluded that science technicians need understanding of scientific principles and methodologies, plus technical aptitude and transferable practical skills.

A major concern to the panel was that too few students are selecting the diploma route through polytechnics, even though this route was demonstrably fit for purpose, and led to excellent career outcomes.  Hence there is also a need for improved careers advice.

“The panel suggests a two-fold approach for the future involving both the Level 6 Diploma in Applied Science delivered in polytechnics, and core requirements in laboratory practice for certain science degrees.”

“We hope that through our work, the business sector, the polytechnic sector and universities will develop cooperative approaches to ensure the future viability of our critically important science technician workforce,” says Professor Johnston.

Detail on the two-fold approach:

  • The polytechnic sector should establish a national network of provision for educating and training science technicians focusing on the Level 6 Diploma in Applied Science qualification, this pathway being most suitable for technicians who will enter employment in industry and service roles.
  • Additionally, the degree-based pathway encompassing the Bachelor of Science qualification should be improved as a route to technician employment, especially for those seeking careers in research organisations. A suitable approach would include a core requirement for the basics of laboratory practice, and/or the introduction of a minor in laboratory practice within the degree programme.

The panel concluded that careers advice given to young people should realistically set out the routes and career opportunities in the technician workforce, similar to the Engineering Education-to-Employment (E2E) programme operated by the Tertiary Education Commission.

The panel further suggests that interested employers provide practical work experience for students during their undergraduate training, lessening the on-the-job training they otherwise have to provide to overcome the deficit of transferable practical skills of new employees.

Many other countries, including the United Kingdom and most recently the United States have also been studying the future viability of their technical workforces.

The release of this report is being supported by a workshop to be held from 2pm to 4pm, 31 May 2017, at the Royal Society Te Apārangi, 11 Turnbull St, Thorndon, Wellington.

Source: Royal Society Te Apārangi