Professor Trevor McMillan, Vice-Chancellor of Keele University and Chair of Midlands Innovation and Mark Jefferies, Chief of University Research Liaison, Rolls-Royce plc, and Honorary Professor, University of Birmingham, assess how the role of industry and academia collaborations have shifted in the light of two national reports being published around the future of the UK’s technical workforce.

Significant advances in the design of aero engine technology have transformed engine architecture, massively reduced fuel burn and C02 emissions from aircraft, improved safety and reliability creating environmental, social, and economic benefits both to the UK and the rest of the world.

This achievement is just one example born out of successful partnerships between Rolls-Royce and leading universities, many of which host extensive rig and test infrastructure. These facilities can be significant, often of national scale – examples include Loughborough, Cambridge, Oxford, and Birmingham to name just a few.

Industry-supported test facilities based within universities make ground-breaking innovations possible and speed up their translation into use. In the Midlands for example, this has led to advancements in many sectors from aerospace, transport, green energy and MedTech.

Keele University has developed an international reputation in sustainability, having been awarded Global Sustainability Institution of the Year in 2021. Industry partnerships have been instrumental in this achievement through the development of The Low Carbon Energy Generation Park and Smart Energy Network Demonstrator (SEND), an innovative real-time energy management system.

Evidence like this makes it clear that industry and higher education collaboration fast-tracks innovation, boosts growth and helps to create intellectual and practical capital that can have a huge impact on the economy.

When universities embed industry and academic collaborations within their culture and infrastructure, the opportunities and positive impact on society and communities can be far reaching.

The exchange of knowledge, skills and facilities benefits partners, as well as university staff and students; the human interactions and relationships between people in the partnerships are what really make it work.

This includes key staff from a wide range of backgrounds, but there is growing evidence highlighting what we have believed for a long time, that the technical workforce plays a critical role in supporting the research and innovation activity, including what takes place within test facilities.

Industry and the public sector invest millions of pounds into high-tech equipment and facilities, but the focus is rarely on the teams who underpin this valuable infrastructure and the partnerships they enable. It is only right that we place greater value and recognition on the skilled technical experts who are at the very heart of R&D activity.

Now is the time for industry and academia to work better together to strengthen the future of the UK’s economy by recognising and investing in the technical skills needed to meet demand from existing and emerging sectors.

Critical enablers of Knowledge Exchange

The Role of Technicians in Knowledge Exchange – An Explorative Study highlights the significant contribution technicians make to knowledge exchange in UK universities and research institutes. This national report assesses the role, presence, and contribution of higher education technical staff.

It evidences how technicians manage cutting-edge facilities, provide valuable expertise that brings research ideas to life, often working directly with external partners to provide solutions for their challenges.

They help industry understand what is possible and offer valuable consultancy that could make or break a novel idea. This knowledge enables test facilities to translate industrial and research aims into practical solutions and deliver quality assured data that companies rely on.

The report concludes that greater recognition of the role and contribution of technical staff within knowledge exchange activities will allow innovation to thrive, further enhancing the contribution higher education makes to the economy and society.

However, new strategic data published in The TALENT Commission tells us that the current technical workforce is ageing and lacking in diversity, coupled with inconsistencies in how technicians are funded, this presents a risk to industry partners who are keen to collaborate with universities.

The UK operates in a competitive global market, and large research-intensive organisations are faced with a choice on where to carry out their R&D.

Broadening technical career pathways

The TALENT Commission report explores the UK’s technical workforce in detail and presents new strategic insights and data about skills, roles and careers. It evidences that the biggest barriers to recruitment and retention of technical staff includes current career pathways for technical roles, limited job entry routes, poor progression and professional development opportunities.

Whilst there is increasing emphasis on technical apprenticeship roles and T-Levels through outreach programmes, there are opportunities to be explored to encourage skilled practitioners to move from universities to Industry and from industry to step into technical roles.

Data shows that technical staff rarely make career transitions and the inconsistency of how roles are funded can also lead to instability impacting recruitment and retention.

The report calls for inclusion of technical staff in hiring decisions, broader vocational pathways to widen the pipeline of technical staff and increased outreach in schools on the range and diversity of technical career roles.

In addition, co-investment from industry and employers to deliver flexible cross-sector training programmes would help encourage more movement and collaboration between academia, industry and the third sector.

Futureproofing technical talent

The TALENT Commission report includes 16 overarching recommendations for the sector targeted at employers, funders, government and policymakers, professional bodies and technicians. For example, employers are being encouraged to improve recognition and visibility of technicians within their own institutions, through a variety of initiatives. This will further improve recruitment and retention.

The report sets out a bold vision for the future and calls for organisations to work together to ensure the provision of high-quality training and career development for the technical community. The Commission is calling for a national institute to oversee the implementation of the recommendations of the report, ensuring a pipeline of skilled technicians to meet the rapidly and continually evolving needs of students, graduates and industry.

Upskilling the UK’s technical talent will enable us to attract and retain high quality individuals and develop a diverse technical community to share technical innovation and best practice across all sectors.

The two reports highlighted present a broad perspective which industry partners are encouraged to engage in and support. By working together to enable porosity between academia and industry for technical careers, we can ensure the sustainability of technical skills, roles and careers across higher education, research and innovation. Collaborations with business are fundamental to this and can help turn science into economic growth.