My contribution to NESTA’s publication for Arts Council England, The view to 2030.

Arts and cultural organisations need to think about workforce issues if they are to stay relevant. This is an obvious point. We focus on what’s on stage or on the gallery walls but we think less about the people we employ, the skills and qualifications they need, and how to be good employers.

It’s a paradox in the sector that labour market data says that more people are being employed year-on-year but young graduates can’t find jobs. It’s harder still for young people who haven’t been to university. One reason for the labour market paradox is that growth is in freelancing, project work or startup companies. It’s also that the available jobs are hidden: administration, backstage, customer services and technical roles.

Ours is an attractive sector. Sadly this has meant that employers don’t have to try very hard to attract talent. Worse, some employers exploit young people’s eagerness to join the industry by taking on unpaid interns rather than paying staff in entry-level jobs. Unless it’s a genuine internship (as part of a formal programme of study) this is not legal: all workers are entitled to the National Minimum Wage. Many creative industries adopt lazy recruitment practices: they use qualifications to screen out candidates, rather than putting in place sensible job descriptions and seeking the talent they need.

We could increase our sector’s relevance, improve its productivity and gain wider credibility with the public if we could start to improve our sector’s approach to employment

Not all arts jobs are graduate jobs, yet the sector hardly recruits under 23s, let alone younger people who are not graduates. This makes for a lack of diversity in the sector which is becoming even more – if that’s possible –  white and middle-class. As a result the sector doesn’t reflect society as a whole. Who wants to attend an event when no one there is like them?

Other sectors work more closely with the education and training sector. They engage with apprenticeships, for example, and they use qualifications as a passport into specific employment areas. This makes for better productivity. It’s obvious, isn’t it, that if employers are more precise about the job roles they have, then new recruits have a better chance of making a positive contribution. Often in the cultural sector it’s a ‘sink or swim’ scenario with incoming staff expected to make up the job as best they can or turn their hand to things they’ve never had training in.

If we thought more precisely about our employment needs we’d be more open to young people coming in to employment through apprenticeships and technical courses. We know from work at Creative & Cultural Skills that we can attract candidates from a wider demographic this way. We also know that a lot of energy goes into cultural organisations’ education programmes but without the crucial link between the participants and employment opportunities. It’s as if we want more young people from different backgrounds to experience the arts but not to work in them.

We could increase our sector’s relevance, improve its productivity and gain wider credibility with the public if we could start to improve our sector’s approach to employment.

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