Culture and Jobs, Lots of Jobs

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JobTown Interview with Andrea Stark

Chief Executive, High House Production Park, Thurrock, UK

At High House Production Park, in Thurrock, UK young people are being trained to make sets, costumes, handle lighting and all sorts of technical skills for the creative and cultural sector. The work they do goes to support anything from productions at the Royal Opera House to a band’s world tour.

What’s more, there is high demand for the skills these young people are acquiring and, happily, the programme she leads is a success on many levels. She believes on-the-job real world learning and close cooperation with employers is the key to that success.

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The Set Up

High House Production Park is a collaboration between:

  • Creative and Cultural Skills – a UK sector skills council, they manage the Backstage Centre at the production park, which delivers a range of training for the backstage. Together, Creative and Cultural Skills and the Backstage Centre form a National Academy – effectively a hub, in Thurrock, for training in the sector throughout the UK.
  • The Royal Opera House
  • High House Artists Studios
  • Thurrock Council

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These partners combine their efforts around training, outreach and education for school age young people, by building relationships with schools and the wider community since the outset of the Park nearly ten years ago.

The Park provides an extensive range of sector-focused training, for different skills, student ages, levels and lengths of course, and so forth – the constant being an emphasis on work-based learning driven by employers themselves.

The goal is to provide high quality accredited qualifications that are in strong demand and recognised by hirers in the sector.

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So, really, what kind of demand is there for set builders, costume makers, lighting technicians and the like?

The film industry, for instance, is regularly stating that there is a lack of highly skilled technical workers.

Across the sector, there is a skill shortage and the most experienced crew are hired months in advance.

We are really not doing it (training for technical and specialist craft skills) in the (right) numbers, and if the skills gaps are not covered, there will constantly be a lag on what the industry can deliver.

So how do you go about it?

We work hand in glove with employers; promoting apprenticeship as a key means to establish high quality work-based learning. We would prefer, frankly, to have all learning in the workplace.

There are specific issues that the industry has pointed out as things it wants. That might be augmenting health and safety for lighting technicians; being up to speed on using the latest equipment and technology. Keeping pace with industry developments is best done by training being delivered in the workplace and examined by assessors who are also working in our industry.

Why this approach?

We firmly believe that the best way to train up people for our industry is with a hands on experience of that industry. It should not to be a linear progression – where it is classroom first then industry.

We think that’s wrong, that’s not working.

Bolting something onto an academic course is not necessarily the most efficient way to go about training a technical and crafts-based workforce.

We’re not saying ‘apprenticeship good, academic bad’. I think we want a more pluralistic approach. We’re also planning progression partnerships into higher education. So we are talking at the moment to University of the Arts London as a progression partner so that someone can do an apprenticeship, get a certain level of qualification from that and choose, if they wish, to go on to further progression (education).

If I were one of these young people, what sort of experience would I be having?

You might be doing one of the many courses in technical areas of the creative industries, offered through our partnership with a local further education college. As part of their course, a student would spend time at the Backstage Centre. So you’d come here and be able to ‘work shadow’ (i.e. learn on the job, from actual employees doing a job) when industry itself is using the building.

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For example, when a band comes in to do its final tech run before a world tour, or a film production comes in, you’d work as part of that, perhaps as a runner (general entry-level assistant on a set) or taking on duties – assisting with technical setup, lighting, anything that has to do with the technical sector of production.

What are the benefits of providing training this way?

It saves employers time and money, because they have people who are job ready. We believe it increases the likelihood of a young person getting a job, as they are applying for work, already having work experience.

It’s a way – particularly for smaller companies – to take the risk out of taking on people.

Furthermore, we find it makes employers more engaged – by being able to articulate what they require in terms of training.

We’re getting our industry to realise what it needs to do if it is to have sustainable growth.

Who are these employers?

Historically it has been an industry made up of micro-businesses, so you don’t get big training departments, and the nature of the industry is that one person will pass on their skills to another in an informal manner.

The future is not about large companies; it’s about micro-business.

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What kind of results do you have to show?

For instance, Further Education (FE) courses based at the Backstage Centre, are achieving 100% retention rates (rates of course completion), and in excess of 80% are going straight into, either, work or further progression (further education).

That’s a really good outcome – as FE can have variable success in terms of retention. The local FE college, which partners with Backstage Centre in providing these courses, are absolutely thrilled and has increased the provision of more industry relevant courses as a result.

If this is so clearly a more effective way to do it, why isn’t everyone doing it your way?

Not every college is interested; engaging with employers in a more creative and direct manner, takes time and effort and can appear at first be a bit of a hassle – to get small employers to articulate what they actually need and to change current training provision accordingly.

Some colleges may not see that form of quite labour intensive engagement as a priority.

I think that will change. Government are asking a lot more of colleges, in terms of their business engagement, because of their concern that more and more young people are coming out of these courses not able to move successfully into workplace.

How did it start?

Some 10 years ago, Creative and Cultural Skills did a labour market analysis to look at where the major gaps were and where the next challenges were.

They found – and this has remained consistent – that technical, craft skills, along with digital skills, are some of the highest skill shortages. Our industry finds it difficult to recruit for them.

This shone a spotlight on what our industry is doing (about skills, on whether training was fit-for-purpose and on where the skills gaps were.

So we began to do something practical about these gaps; the Production Park translates what they discovered, into doing something about it.

The UK may not have the scale manufacturing base it used to have , but if you think of the level of high quality craft skills that go into set building and making productions, we are the best in the world at these highly specialized making skills.

If we don’t do something about maintaining those skills, we’ll simply lose our footing in things that we are really good at.

And you have just kept growing?

Yes. We’re only just starting a new collaboration with the Royal Opera House, the local Further Education College and University of the Arts London; to create a three-year degree course in costume construction – all its technical craft skills, like pattern cutting, fitting, and so on.

This course is designed based on what the Royal Opera House costumiers tell us they require from entrants, that they can’t get from normal degree courses.

So for instance, if the Opera House needs 35 waistcoats, that becomes a live brief for the students to deliver on time and in budget.

The Opera House will move its costume making to Thurrock, and we’ve built two new costume-making studios.

Or, we recently bid successfully to become a national college for creative and cultural industries – a kind of elite technical college. This is part of a national policy agenda around higher-level apprenticeships, higher-level technical skills and a big emphasis on progression.

That means that we are now beginning to put together an employer-led curriculum, delivered fundamentally through apprenticeship. The Production Park will be the hub, of a national operation working with employers across the country.

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How does all this fit in with more general strategies for development and regeneration in the area?

Thurrock as a place had not diversified its skills base, as a consequence of that it had limited job opportunities, particularly in middle and high skills.

And what I wanted to do, with others, was to find a way of bringing a new sector of jobs, into an area that had not recognised that sector. However, because of Thurrock’s proximity to a world city (London), which has pre-eminence in this sector, the opportunity was there to be had.

I’ve been advising Thurrock Council on establishing strategic priorities for culture, and, about a year ago, the Council agreed a set of three thematic priorities:

  • A cultural entitlement for every child in Thurrock.
  • That the creative industries will be prioritised as a new economic sector, and measures will be taken to encourage more creative businesses to locate here.
  • To re-engage communities through creative and cultural programmes.

For instance, as a result of this policy commitment to a cultural entitlement, the Council have now commissioned the Royal Opera House to spearhead a cultural education programme, with an ambition to reach every school in Thurrock. So, they are engaging children, parents and the teaching community in high quality cultural experiences.

As a part of these experiences, young people, parents and teachers are being primed to seek – but also in terms of the opportunities to progress later on into the industry.

It’s all part of the Council’s vision about Thurrock as a place that can have a wider range of industries.

And in terms of physical regeneration?

In the local area, High House is a place that local people can enjoy as a public park, feel comfortable in and, through it, understand how a new industry works.

Recently, a developer, active here locally, has gone into a partnership with a consortium to build a film studio. The Council believes that quality of developer would not have approached Thurrock without the Production Park being in place.

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What do you personally like about working the way you do?

I think this form of deep cooperation unlocks hidden value.

I think the do-it-yourself effort we’ve made has grown our confidence about challenging established ways of doing things. We have the vision and the confidence to think beyond the status quo.

I like breaking new ground, innovation, when it’s purposeful. When you can see the potential in a place or in an idea, and the only thing that’s holding us back is that there is a status quo that locks it in – then you challenge it.

What advice would you give someone trying to do something similar to what you’ve achieved in High House?

Two things.

One, you can’t do it by yourself, so look at who you have around you, in a place. To be real and credible, you need to get guys who are working in the industry who are interested in the wider agenda.

And it’s incredibly important to get people who are working in the education field who are interested in challenging the norm.

Two, for me, it is about saying that it is possible to have a really strong ideal, and strong vision for what the place can become.

The one thing we now know about what we recently experienced, in the downturn is that nothing’s forever, and that means, on the upside that you can think differently about inventing different futures.

The old certainties of big employers and the same job for life, I think, have gone away. Being able to look afresh and think the unthinkable can be quite a positive process.

The old certainties are not something that you should base your future vision on.

That’s a source of great anxiety for some people.

I know, but I think that what makes me more anxious is not facing the future, not building a new shared vision.

The idea that the only future our prospective future governments can offer us in the UK is austerity – that’s no vision.

More generally, how do you feel about the situation of young people at this time?

I think it is the most challenging that I’ve known it in my lifetime, in terms of young people’s opportunities.

It’s not just to do with our general financial situation – which it has a lot to do with it of course. It’s also to do with how, over time, we’ve lost connection with certain types of industries.

Some of those industries are never going to come back, but some of the competences and skills sets of those industries are still very much in evidence.

Like our high quality making skills in the UK; we are brilliant at making things.

I think what we’ll see over the next ten years, if we do our job right as adults, is a generation that will be absolutely able to operate on a self-employed and freelance basis, successfully.

That’s the big challenge, – how to shift into a 21st century economy that is predominantly small and micro business

I think it’s beholden upon anyone who’s grown up and is in good work to be absolutely thinking outside of the box now about how to create opportunities for young people – who will not just to take a job but instead have the confidence and skills to make a job for themselves.

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Thank you for this interview

– Interview by Ian Goldring, JobTown Lead Expert

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