Dr. Neil Hillman MPSE, MIPS is a production sound mixer, dialogue editor, Re-recording mixer and supervising sound editor, with over 700 IMDb credits across more than 100 separate titles. Also an academic, author and speaker; and passionate about inspiring the next generation of film and television professionals about sound he shares his thoughts about newcomers to the industry being fit for purpose.
There seems to be a recurring theme in both the broadcast trade press, and the broadsheets, that goes along the lines of industry newcomers not being ‘fit for purpose’, or, to the collective furrowing of brows, that universities are simply not turning out the kind of graduates that are ready for work. Whilst not intended as a source of comfort, it’s worth noting that it’s not just the film and television industry that is feeling under-supplied with cohorts of perfect candidates.
In July 2017, Flora Carr writing in The Daily Telegraph reported on the findings of a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report, warning that a third of all companies were unhappy with graduates’ attitude to work, bemoaning their lack of resilience and their self-management skills. It went further; millennials were giving employers grave cause for concern, citing a wide-spread fear amongst employers that graduates were not only not ready for work, but according to one CEO, graduates often required “ego-massaging”.
Subsequently, in November 2018, the CBI published a report on their website with the headline ‘Almost half (49%) of young people (aged 17-23) believe that their education has not prepared them for the world of work’.
Neither side would appear to feel well-matched, then; so, where might the blame lie? With unreasonable expectations from employers, or from the students themselves? Or is it the case that universities are simply over-supplying too much of the wrong thing?
Campaigning website Graduate Fog is no stranger to asking uncomfortable questions of august bodies; and none come more awkward than their inquiry into whether universities are deliberately inflating student degree grades to boost league rankings and attract more new students. Their findings showed that in 2012-13, the first year higher fees were charged, 18% of those who completed their first undergraduate degree got a first. In contrast, in 2016-17, 26% were awarded the top grade.’
The report goes on to say ‘Unlike national exams such as GCSEs and A-levels, universities are free to award as many first and 2:1 degrees as they like, as there is no standardised grading system. Universities are currently allowed to set their own grade boundaries and algorithms for calculating final degree classifications – a system which critics say is open to abuse.’
Graduate Fog suggests the likely consequence of this ‘Already we are hearing graduate employers complaining that too many applicants have a 2.1 degree. This is bad news for everyone, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds.’ Why? Because in some cases, employers say that a difficulty distinguishing a really good degree from an okay one could make them more likely to use other additional selection criteria, like UCAS points or the prestige (‘snob factor’) of the university where the graduate studied.’
Last year, Sarah Steed, director of innovation and engagement at Norwich University of the Arts, wrote in The Guardian ‘Too many graduates are mismatched to their jobs. What’s going wrong? Students often aren’t aware of their own skills and experience, or what different jobs require. [They] need better careers advice to help them define their skills and attributes – and understand how these match different career options.’
Perhaps the answer, then, lies in offering potential entrants a taste of the workplace; and what a taste ‘our’ industry has served up for these earnest and often unpaid interns and runners. In a story exposed by Graduate Fog and broken more widely by The Sun, both ITV’s X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent took on unpaid, industry hopefuls and worked them on 17-hour shifts for 7 days straight. When the story surfaced in the press, the runners were quietly paid an undisclosed sum; but subsequent series’ has employed runners on the 17 / 7 shift pattern at £390 per week – well below the National Minimum Wage for a 119 hour working week (at just £3.28 an hour, that’s less than a Costa cappuccino.)
Graduate Fog commented ‘As TV continues to be one of the most popular career choices among UK graduates, there are concerns that young workers are being taken advantage of during internships and casual work, in their desperation to gain the experience they need to be able to apply for permanent jobs.’
Answering the question of whether these temporary staff were being exploited by the programmes, an unnamed Thames Television spokesperson implied that the youngsters should be grateful for the opportunity presented to them, saying ‘Runners are an important part of our production teams and we work hard to retain our staff, nurturing, training and promoting them within the company. We are proud that this is demonstrated by the fact that many people who have started out as runners both on The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent have gone on to stay with the company, progressing to various roles including producers and executive producers.’
This year, it was the BBC who were criticized by The Sun for advertising unpaid roles in their coverage of Wimbledon 2019, which involved running errands; assisting film crews/radio reporters; collecting and distributing press releases/orders of play/running orders etc; meeting programme guests and escorting around grounds; general office duties; prop sourcing; assisting commentators including delivering refreshments.’
Advertised on the BBC’s own jobs board, the positions to be filled were classified as ‘volunteering’. But here are a further couple of questions to ponder: if we specifically consider the creative and technical jobs of film and television (those below-the-line grades on the Producer’s budget spreadsheet), do newcomers actually need what academic institutions currently have on offer? How useful is it for a trainee to join the industry with a degree, a £50k debt and be three years late in starting the kind of specialist, hands-on training that only industry can provide?
Of course, I’m playing devil’s advocate with regard to the wider value of a university education; it’s all but impossible not to be enriched by the experience sandwiched between school and employment. But it is appropriate to question if there is a more viable alternative to that of the purely academic route for tomorrow’s film and television industry craft professionals.
I’ve no doubt that my first degree in electronics was of benefit in a wider sense for my chosen path of film and television sound operations. But of the six sound trainees taken on by the ITV company I joined the industry with after graduating, only two of us started with a technical qualification. The others came from being a kitchen fitter, a mapmaker with the AA, a librarian and a factory worker. All of us were a similar age, were trained in the same timeframe, became highly competent in our field, and 37 years later, we’re still plying our trade and greet each other in various Outside Broadcast compounds around the country. The Company’s investment in our training clearly paid off for them, and us.
A number of readers may well have been trained by the BBC, gaining the corporation’s ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ technical certificates with few, if any, Further Education (FE) or Higher Education (HE) qualifications; yet they went on to be the backbone of the BBC’s technical operations at a time when broadcasting relied on skilled operators rather than the system minders modern broadcasting now requires.
The challenge of change
I know, bygone days and all that; but the film and television industry – as with all areas of technology (or ‘tech’ as we must now refer to it as) – is already over the brink of change. The drive to join the creative sector (of which the screen industries are but one part) is a stampede; and not least of all because today’s entrants to any one of the traditional professions face a stark choice: be a part of something creative and individual, or face being replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI) or a software programme that can run the feats of recall required (what we might call ‘specialist knowledge’) to treat us or advise us faster and more reliably than a human can (whose ability to learn and reliably recall facts we use as a measure of intelligence, and pay them accordingly).
So, are we in the midst of the fourth or the fifth industrial revolution? Whilst we can agree on the first (steam), the second (science) and the third (mass production), ‘tech’ would seem to have sprung out of the fourth industrial revolution (digital) and taken on a mantle all of its own. However, what is clear, is that from the third industrial revolution onwards, each new change in the industrial landscape has diminished the number of ‘permanent’ workers trained and retained by an employer for life, or even years; and love it or loathe it, the film and television industry has been at the forefront of gleefully adopting the beloved low overhead of freelance and contract working.
But there’s a critical situation that needs fixing, fast. Screenskills, an industry fund-holding body created to address training in the screen industries, predicts the need for a further 10,000 new entrants by 2022.
With a track-record of little regard for legacy or investing in the future wellbeing of the industry, it’s difficult not to argue that the film and television industry is facing a skills-gap of its own making; and will these 10,000 new positions be staff jobs, or freelance? It’s an important question because it makes a huge difference to the remuneration on offer. At last count, in total there were 5 million freelance workers in the UK and their average pay at £240 per week is half that of a salaried employee. And here’s another un-balanced equation: currently the new-entrant and freelancer bears the cost for their own training and also covers their own overheads; then ‘the industry’ (i.e. their production company clients) employs them when it wants, and pretty much at the rate it wants. It’s the creative ‘gig-economy’ and a situation whose fragile economic eco-system makes little sense and surely cannot continue as a sustainable model; even though it’s an arrangement that works well for production company accounts. Indeed, for film and television production in the UK, the picture couldn’t look rosier.
According to a recent BFI report the UK’s screen-based industries – film, television, VFX, animation and games – are booming. With a turnover of around £37.5 billion they contribute £14.4 billion to the UK economy and deliver around 211,000 jobs. Total UK spend on feature films in 2017 – the most recent complete figures – was £2 billion with 29 big budget features of more than £30 million. Nearly 100 high-end television productions saw a UK spend of £985 million.
Back to the future
So how might training the next generation of creative and craft professionals otherwise look? Well, by no means a modern idea, the concept of apprenticeships is long-established; but after peaking in the 1960s, apprenticeships entered a slow decline, with half as many apprentices in employment in 1995 as there were in 1979. Put simply, they went out of fashion and considered something so out of step with modern thinking, they were left to quietly disappear.
However, in 2017, the UK government introduced a national apprenticeship levy on companies with an annual payroll greater than £3 million pounds, compelling them to provide 0.5% of that figure towards a national apprenticeship scheme. Each employer then receives a £15,000 allowance against their contribution.
According to Seb Murray, writing in The Guardian in March, two years in and the scheme has proved successful ‘Apprenticeships are an absolute boon for employers. They are a way to plug skills gaps, attract and retain talent, and bring fresh thinking into your firm. Little wonder, then, that more than half of companies polled by the Institute of Student Employers said they recruited apprentices last year, and apprentice and school-leaver recruitment was 50% higher than in 2017, a much faster rate than the growth in graduate hiring.’
As a solution for film and television training purposes, it would seem to be a logical foundation: part of the conditions is that the apprentice must spend a minimum of a year in training, of which 20% must be spent off-site and be paid at least the National Minimum Wage. With most UK FE and HE institution’s holidays ranging between 3-5 weeks at Cristmas, 3-5 weeks at Easter and 12-14 weeks in the summer, the available time on-the-job for the apprentice could range between 18 and 25 weeks.
Yet within the film and television industry, even given its record revenues, there is little enthusiasm for a return to the days of staff employment; or more crucially, a reluctance to embrace the wider responsibility of initially training the staff that go on to generate such profits. Having to play a part in the compulsory nationwide training scheme is also causing discomfort amongst some industry players, as Geoffrey Macnab and John Hazleton reported on the Screendaily website. ‘Fiona Francombe, site manager at Bristol’s The Bottle Yard Studios (which houses TV shoots such as Broadchurch, Poldark and Sherlock), says the new system fails to take into account the freelance nature of employment in film and TV and other creative industries. “There needs to be a different structure for this industry,” she says. “Very rarely does a production work for a whole year where you can give someone a 12-month grounding with a job at the end of it.’
As an ex-apprentice myself (albeit in a different industry), I can vouch for this as a training structure that quite simply offers the best of both worlds: the apprentice spends time in the workplace, with hands-on training and is paid; and they supplement this with formal studies that underpin their practical work, which in a new scheme could result in three levels of qualifications – graded vocational, technical and academic – that could also have a genuinely transferable value in the world of work outside of film and television.
The one-size-fits-all nature of the government levy may not be the best way to fund these apprenticeships for the film and television industry, an industry-specific fund administered at national or regional level may well be a much better way to go; and universities can, must and will continue to play a crucial role in any new training landscape. But right now, it’s difficult to say that the current arrangements for industry entrants are providing a sustainable future for such a buoyant and profitable sector; in fact, it’s tempting to say that they’re not at all ‘fit-for-purpose’.
© Neil Hillman, 2019. All rights reserved.