Technicians: industry’s unsung heroes

With Britain facing a skills shortage, a new exhibition is highlighting the work of British industry’s backroom boys and girls

Pictured seated in a workshop, visor raised, 20-year-old Sophy Bage gazes resolutely across the room. Hair drawn back tightly into a ponytail, bright yellow earplugs just visible, a small smile steals across her illuminated face. She looks completely at home – and well she might. Because Bage is a welder.

On show at the Mall Galleries in central London, this photograph of Bage forms part of a week-long tribute to the little-known, yet vital, champions of science and engineering. Titled Technicians Make It Happen, and composed of photographs, paintings and items relating to a host of varied careers, the exhibition is a paean to those who make the wheels of industry turn, usher forth feats of civil engineering and build intricate equipment that will yield a slew of scientific results. “Technicians have a really diverse range of roles,” says Nigel Thomas, executive director of Education and Skills at the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. “You’ll see them in the NHS right through to stuff like satellite design.”

But this is not just a celebration of science and technology. It is a call to arms. Commissioned by Gatsby, the exhibition marks the start of a new campaign of the same name aimed at propelling the roles of technicians into the public consciousness.

Liam, an electrical technician at RAL Space.
Liam, an electrical technician at RAL Space. Photograph: Paul Worpole

“We need about 700,000 [technicians] over the next decade – and really we are just not training enough of them in this country,” says Thomas. “Every employer survey that you read bemoans the lack of skilled technicians; they just can’t find the people to take the jobs.” That, he says, is in part down to a lack of awareness: the roles of technicians, it seems, are simply invisible.

It’s a crisis the new exhibition is set to tackle. Showcasing a host of success stories in areas as diverse as stage engineering and horticulture, Thomas hopes the initiative will dispel outdated notions of what it means to be a technician — and entice students into considering apprenticeships.

It’s a mission Bage is behind. “There is a lot of ‘I wouldn’t dare work in a factory’ sort of thing put about, and I think it is the way people are brought up,” she explains in matter-of-fact tones when we speak on the phone. “At school you are always encouraged to go to university and try your best academically, whereas there are lots of vocational jobs that you can earn more money in.” Currently working at the metalwork firm Hydram Engineering in County Durham, Bage was drawn to mechanics when she was growing up, with go-carting a highlight. Completing an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering, she found her niche. “I was good at welding and I liked it,” she says. “I love that it is unusual.”

She isn’t the only one who is keen to change perceptions. Captured by brush for the exhibition, Joshua Uwadiae says that the term “technician” often mistakenly conjures up the idea of a “random fixer upper”, and that can put people off. The word definitely has a stigma about it, he adds. “It doesn’t really seem as good or as exciting as the actual work can be.”

Now running his own fitness startup, Wegym, Uwadiae explored his early love of tech after being, as he puts it, “kicked out of school”. Returning to education, he went on to become an apprentice with Microsoft before moving on to delivery company eCourier, where he was soon managing the technology department. “The most natural thing that I felt associated with was computing,” he says.

While the roles technicians undertake are staggeringly diverse, so too are the companies that employ them: among the case studies on show are apprentices working with firms ranging from the BBC to Brompton Bicycles.

It’s a message, says Thomas, that will be taken beyond the capital. Following the exhibition’s opening, the display will take to the road in the form of a 360-degree video, allowing students up and down the country to experience the portraits and narratives through virtual reality headsets.

Ultimately, Thomas hopes the campaign will finally see technicians given their due. “They are the oil in the machine that drives productivity,” he says.

Technicians Make It Happen runs from 4-9 April at the Mall Galleries


Nicola Davis

The GuardianTramp

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