Skills Deficit – Do we have a ticking time bomb?

The creative industries contribute £87 billion every year to our country’s economy yet barely a week goes by without seeing or hearing a reference to skills shortages in the UK. There is always chatter about how the upcoming engineers are often missing vital skills so we asked The Birmingham Conservatoire, Wolverhampton, Winchester and London South Bank Universities how they are preparing the next generation of sound engineers. We also spoke to industry pros about how they ensured they obtained the necessary skills for sound engineering.

Defined as student experiences that occur in the educational process, we asked how the current curriculum is developed. “The curriculum itself can take many forms” said Simon Hall of The Birmingham Conservatoire. “Our programmes include having industry reps inputting to degree revalidation events; bringing in external speakers from right across industry; teaching industry standard techniques and gear. We also have “Industrial Mentors” assigned to every module taught, an active practitioner that participates in forums and informally responds to emails, which works really well for us. I once heard a studio colleague criticise a music tech-based degree saying that the grads from it couldn’t read a score or a circuit diagram, so what was the point? You’ve got to use a range of strategies to make sure they’re getting strong relevant content and lots of hands on experience of both technologies and musical skills.”

Matt Bellingham of Wolverhampton University said “Our current curriculum was designed in consultation with practitioners and academics in the areas of music production and music computing. Our BA (Hons) Music Technology course has been accredited by JAMES since 2013, which has helped us further align our practice with industry.”

One particular core curriculum component is professional development. Niall Thomas of Winchester University said “To achieve this, we ask our students to engage with lectures and classes in less-traditional ways, using them as networking and knowledge sharing opportunities, whilst delivering the core skills they need to manage their own career in the audio/music industries.”

But it doesn’t stop there. At The London South Bank University (LSBU) technology plays a big part on what is taught. “We strive to cover established industry processes through to more experimental and emerging techniques” said Justin Randell. “For the industry sector, we have embedded the Avid accredited Pro Tools course into the curriculum and we deliver the course in a studio-focussed environment that replicates industry practices whilst working on a project.”

With employers looking for those with a relevant skill set the pressure is on Universities to ensure that students leave with a wide range of experience. “By enabling students to experience different roles in the projects they undertake as part of their assessments, we find students gain a more rounded set of skills and have good communication and interpersonal skills to work in a creative environment” added Randell. “Beyond the course delivery, we invite established professionals to deliver master classes and workshops. In the past we have had record label showcases, talks from mix engineers, sound designers, and industry bodies such as PRS.”

When it comes to involving industry professionals many Universities seek guest speakers to talk directly to the students. “We aim to invite speakers from a range of industries, including music producers; musicians, songwriters, game sound developers and software and hardware developers” added Bellingham.
The University of Winchester hosts Industry Weeks. Guest speakers are selected to promote the diverse and the multifaceted nature of the music industry, and include: Grammy award winning Record Producers, audio technology companies, software developers, advocates of healthcare and wellbeing for musicians, performing artists, and, institutions such as the PRS Foundation and the Musician Union.

We asked the Universities how they think education could better support those wanting to go into sound engineering/audio industry. “I think dialog between education and industry is really important and it’s quite tricky to have the right platforms to be able to do this in a meaningful way” said Randell. “Both sides are obviously busy running their own day to day business, and it is difficult to step back and look at the bigger picture. Apprenticeships are an interesting route at the moment, and the government seem to be supportive of those types of initiatives which I think could lead to some interesting ways of formalising what had previously existed.”

“I would like to see earlier education provision encourage the use of technology in all aspects of performance, production, and practice, as the music industries are embracing technology more broadly” said Thomas. “At the University of Winchester, we are doing this by supporting students to pursue their individual interest or talent, but also to develop skills that fit alongside this. If a student is a brilliant songwriter, why not expose them to, and develop links with, song writing and composition for sync and visual media?”

“A good general and rounded education at level 2 and level 3 is imperative, and we don’t always see that in applicants” added Hall. “Also, the killing of GCSE music in schools, and particularly the gradual demise of MT A level and BTECs is really killing the supply chain for HE. In addition to learning core skills in the class room, students need to acquire hands on experience and we’re lucky in that this happens daily, and students can get as involved as they want” continued Hall. “We’ve 5 venues that host 450 public facing events every year, alongside countless professional recording sessions and live research projects.”

At LSBU a lot of the course is delivered in a hands on studio environment with an emphasis on taking on production roles. “In the final year we have a module where students can go on work experience” added Randell. “It has been great to see some of our students work in some of the best audio companies in London such as Halo Post. This year we are working on getting students to set up a record label and releasing their tracks, which is also a great way to get them to see the whole process of creating through to releasing your work in public.”

If Universities are working with industry professionals and ensuring the best opportunities for experience for students why is there still an argument that there is a skill deficit? We asked where Universities see the skill gaps and how they are addressing them. “I think one of the current challenges is this idea of creating “flexible workers” and whilst I understand the rationale for this, I do think there’s a reason why specific roles emerged for certain tasks “said Randell. “Technology is always going to challenge those conventions, and force us to reconsider how we define these roles but, it is worth remembering that if you want something done well then you can’t expect one person to do 3-4  different jobs! I think universities strive to create well-rounded graduates that have a solid set of skills but also the aptitude to learn new things and adapt to a hanging landscape.”

“Identifying a particular skills gap is quite difficult” added Thomas. “Personally, I think it is about communication and people skills; how to work with people from diverse backgrounds with different creative intentions. When designing the two music programmes, we had lots of meetings with manufacturers, producers, songwriters. They all identified that communication and being able to express ideas in creative situations were the most important traits they looked for in graduates or new employees.”

So how do Universities prepare students for the work environment? “I do think that there can be a tendency that industry expects “oven ready graduates”, and are very quick to vilify education if they can’t immediately hit the ground running!” said Hall “There’s a difference between education and just offering sector-specific training!”

“Outside of specialist skills, we encourage students to develop good professional habits added Bellingham. “We emphasise reliability and punctuality; time and project management, including working to a deadline and/or budget; good verbal and written/electronic communication skills.”

“I think it’s incredibly important to remember that despite all the technology, one of the most fundamental aspects of working in the music and audio sector is the ability to listen” added Randell. “This might sound very obvious to some, but it is an incredibly difficult skill to learn and one which is often not talked about!”

To understand what some of the professional engineers had to say we spoke to award winning sound engineers Dom Morley, Wes Maebe and Emma Butt about how they got started and what advice they would give the next generation of engineers.

Like many engineers Dom Morley knocked on many studio doors. “I got some good work experience in a small studio” said Morley. “Asking lots of questions is always a fundamental part of learning. As an assistant I used to take mixes I’d done to some of the freelance engineers that I had a good relationship with. I’d ask them for three things they would change about the mix and then I’d learn to hear problems that I hadn’t heard before. That helped develop my critical listening skills quickly! I run a service at where you can upload your mixes and get honest and in-depth feedback on where you can find improvements to improve not just the mix at hand, but your mixing and production skills generally. If you keep working on your education and get out and network like your life depends on it, you should be good.”

Many engineers lecture at Universities or take on interns. “It’s easy to get lost in your bubble but we all have a responsibility to pass on our knowledge and experience just as we benefitted from those that have gone before us. For me, The Mix Consultancy feels like a good way to pass on knowledge and share skills in a very effective and unique way. I think there’s a gap when people leave college and start getting into their careers. Doing sessions with a variety of successful and experienced engineers and producers is a huge way on building on your formal education. That’s another reason why I started The Mix Consultancy – as a bridge to help young engineers to continue getting in-depth feedback on their work without being in full-time education.”

As for Wes Maebe, his Father worked for Studer and EMT as a technician and pointed him towards the industry. “He put me in touch with the AES Benelux and we carefully selected a college in London to get me started. That’s where I caught the audio bug good and proper. I think the biggest hit of adrenaline was when I went to the Isles of Scilly to mix FOH for the headliner. This was my first gig fresh out of college and by the time I got there I was told by the promoter that I was the only engineer on the island and had to rig the P.A., do FOH for all 20+ bands, including Monitors from FOH and be on hand on stage for the change over’s! Talk about baptism by fire.”

Many students rely on their tutors to ensure that they have the skills needed to enter the professional world of audio. “The problem is that this industry is changing so much all the time, you need to keep up, non stop” added Maebe. “I started going to trade shows like AES and IBC quite early on. It gives you access to all the new developments and allows you to get in contact with the manufacturers directly. Industry magazines can be a good source of information as are industry trade body events and of course learning from the pros and your peers. Never stop learning. Also, don’t assume because you did your time in Uni that you know everything. I see this a lot with fresh graduates, they are very set in their ways because they’ve been told you ‘have to use that particular microphone for that instrument’ or ‘this is the way to compress a drum kit’ and to them that’s gospel. In this industry there is no one perfect way to do things. You have to have an open and creative mind, be willing to learn constantly. Be an information sponge, observe and store all those different tricks, they’ll come in handy at some point in your career.” 

Networking is an important part of being successful at any stage of your career. “When I moved to the UK the, now sadly no longer, Association for Professional Recording Services provided a fantastic network of manufacturers, engineers and producers. There’s the Audio Engineering society and the Music Producer’s Guild who provide regular networking events, workshops and get together’s. Of course it all costs money, but these are long term investments. A lot of us provide workshops and panels at trade shows. I love providing 1 on 1 training as well. I’ve just come back from a lovely studio in Tuscany where I spent 3 days training a high school graduate who’s showing a lot of potential and hunger to learn.”

Maebe sees the biggest gap in the education is the lack of people skills. “I feel the majority of the schools are pumping out graduates who think they know everything. And in theory they may do, but real life in a studio or on the road is a different animal altogether. Half our time is spent managing people’s expectations, dealing with artists’ insecurities, band politics and relationships and handling hangers on and label/publishing people popping into the studio. They don’t teach that in school. General bedside manner is a must too. I feel that many schools don’t address the issue that there are far less jobs available than they are releasing students into the workplace. It’s a tough job with crazy hours and it can be quite taxing on you emotionally as well. That is not being taught.” 

It’s also important to remember that this work is not always glitz and glamour. “We are the backroom people. We’re there to make the artists sound great. We’re there to facilitate the artist’s dream. Secondly, musical education goes a very long way. Knowing how to read a score, play an instrument. That will help a lot in the communication with the artist. They may not know all our technical jargon, but if you understand theirs, it’ll be much easier to convey and grasp ideas in the studio environment. And again, people skills. You’re constantly walking the tightrope between being a technical person, a creative person, a business head and someone who needs to listen and who sometimes needs to be the person to deal with personal and emotional issues.”

As for giving tips to someone fresh out of education Maebe says “Never stop learning! Try out a few different segments of the market. You may find out that engineering is actually not your thing but that you are amazing at spotting talent, constructing songs, dealing with contracts, organising tours. Even look into the various areas within engineering. Maybe studio life isn’t for you, but you’ll flourish in post-production or theatre. Check out all avenues, because this is not just some desk job. It requires all of your heart and passion. And if you can’t put soul in it, as with any job, you shouldn’t be doing it. Find your area of expertise and excitement and excellent in it!”

Emma Butt, Re-Recording Mixer, knew that she wanted to work in music from a young age. On completing a two year course at University on advanced recording techniques and music technology she was offered a position as a runner at a post house in Dublin. “Skill sharing is such an important tool for any engineer” said Emma. “Listening to more experienced engineers and more importantly skill sharing across different skill sets, not just sound, was vitally important. It also helped to understand each of the job roles involved in a production and keeping on top of new updates of software and plugins, taking time to experiment with different ways to do things that work for me personally.” 

“The audio team I worked within back in Ireland was my biggest support network so make sure you gel well with the team. Since moving to the UK, networking and joining organisations likes AMPS have been invaluable at meeting people and connections that I can call on when I need support. We are now getting to a stage that there is so much work happening in the UK, we have a lack of skilled sound engineers, especially dialogue editors. The only way to change that is for the more experienced engineers to give up some of their free time to help support, mentor and train the next generation.”

For those just beginning their careers Emma offers the following advice “You don’t know it all yet so please do not call yourself a sound designer or a mixer until you have earned your stripes. I’ve seen so many CV’s of students straight out of Uni with no credits except student shorts, who call themselves sound designers. It’s really important to recognise that you aren’t there just yet. There’s a lot you need to learn and your uni course has just given you the foundations to start. I know personally, seeing a student label themselves as a sound designer will put me off reading further down their CV. The title of assistant is nothing to be ashamed of and will earn you more respect from the people hiring. Also don’t be afraid to say you don’t know how to do something yet. If you’ve been lucky enough to get a job as a runner or an assistant, asks questions. The other engineers will respect you so much more for the honesty but also will appreciate the chance to show you their method of working. 

As for additional support for those leaving University Emma says “I think Universities need to start providing students with more practical advise for finding work such as who are the people who actually hire -sound supervisors, post supervisors, head of audio within a company or head of client services for runner positions. Networking too like where to go, what organisations are around that they can join and websites on which they can find low budget work to help build up their CV. Most upcoming engineers don’t even know about BECTU. No matter what people’s feelings are about unions, setting rates when you start out is a minefield. You never know where to start. If any upcoming engineers are planning on going straight into the freelance world, the rate card is invaluable at not under pricing yourself.”