SIGN Research Associate, Dr Bethan Jones, examines the skills shortages, gaps and training needs affecting the UK screen industries.
On 17 January 2023 the House of Lords Communications Committee published the results of its inquiry into the challenges that lay ahead for the creative industries. Their report At risk: our creative future, which SIGN and XR Stories submitted evidence to, offered a stark warning that unless the Government acts soon the UK’s creative industries risk falling behind their global competitors.
The creative industries, including film, TV and gaming as well as theatre, museums and galleries, were worth more than £115bn to the UK economy before the Covid-19 pandemic and were one of the UK’s fastest growing industries. The UK’s screen sector has become a global player with recent successes including Disney’s Willow, HBO’s Game of Thrones and Netflix’s Enola Holmes being made in the UK. A 2022 report by ScreenSkills suggested that the continued growth in film and high end television production alone will require between 15,130 and 20,770 additional full-time equivalent employees (FTEs) by 2025, but two of the major issues affecting the screen industries – pointed out by the Communications Committee report – are the availability of skilled workers and the quality of training provision. Seetha Kumar, CEO of ScreenSkills, the industry-led skills body for the screen industries, told the inquiry that “skills are currently the biggest single inhibitor to growth” in the screen industries. Skills gaps and training provision was the subject of recent research carried out by SIGN.
Where are the skills gaps?
Skills gaps and shortages are not a new phenomenon in the screen industries. A Creative Skillset report from nearly a decade ago highlighted areas like production, sound engineering and health and safety as having issues, and a 2022 BFI skills review reiterated these ongoing skills gaps as well as highlighting new ones caused by changes in technology and the Covid-19 pandemic.
Technical skills are a key area for concern, with things like virtual production fundamentally changing the way that film and television are produced. Virtual production uses real-time rendering of different environments on screens within the studio at the same time that actors are being filmed, through technology typically used in video games. New skills are needed to ensure that the UK can capitalise on the economic and environmental benefits of these new technologies and keep producing these high-end shows. The economic and environmental benefits this kind of production brings will mean that new skills are needed in the studio to make sure the UK can keep producing these high-end shows.
Covid-19 halted productions, leading to an estimated £2.6bn loss in GVA (gross value added) and whilst things seem to be returning to normal, the sector faced a backlog of work in the immediate aftermath. This backlog, coupled with the loss of workers during the pandemic due to redundancy, caring responsibilities, or transitioning to other sectors, has led to an increased demand for skilled workers.
What have been called ‘soft skills’ – but which we argue in our recent report should be called professional skills given their importance to success in the workforce – are also repeatedly highlighted as an issue within the industry. Employers recognise skills like team-working, communication skills and time management as important to work in the industry, but what’s clear from our research – and what seems to get missed elsewhere – is that these skills are important across all career levels. It’s not just new entrants who need to be able to communicate clearly, use people skills or display a can-do attitude. Directors, producers and senior managers also need to be able to do these things or they won’t get the best out of their teams.
What about the training currently on offer?
There is a need for skills and training at every level, which is echoed by our respondents. ScreenSkills highlighted that there are “crucial pressure points” in entry and mid-tier roles in the screen industries, but the focus for the government seems to be on new entrants, especially those aged 16-25. The Communications Committee specifically referred to pre-16 education as failing to prepare students adequately for careers in the creative industries while post-16 education was seen as fragmented and confusing. Over 4,000 courses are on offer in higher education alone, but more clarity needs to be given to learners about the types of courses that are available, who they are for, what will be taught and where they can be found.
Although not expressly discussed in the Communications Committee report, tensions between academic and vocational routes, universities and employers are important in understanding the disconnect that seems to exist between the number of students graduating from screen industries programmes and the number of employers who tell researchers that they find it difficult to recruit. The 2022 BFI skills review identified the need for universities and industry to work more closely together but as one interviewee told us “there’s a mismatch there in terms of the priorities that HE instils in terms of what’s important to them, versus actually what’s important for the industry.” Despite calls for companies and their representative groups to get involved in supporting the education sector, there remains a lack of collective willingness.
Changes in technology and working practices aren’t just affecting those who want to enter the industry though. The difference between how film and television is produced now compared to even twenty years ago is huge and those who’ve been working in the sector for some time need to ensure their existing skills are being maintained and new skills are being taught. The Communications Committee report only makes a passing reference to lifelong learning, and mainly in relation to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement that was introduced as part of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. The report also doesn’t take into account that education is a devolved subject across the governments of the United Kingdom and so different provision already exists in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Where do we go from here?
The Communications Committee report makes clear that Government complacency risks undermining the UK’s creative industries and there is much to do to ensure that the sector keeps its place as a global leader. At risk: our creative future makes several recommendations to ensure the sector sits at the heart of the UK’s future growth plans, including addressing the decline in Design and Technology GCSEs, improving careers guidance and addressing barriers to apprenticeships. Our research has also made recommendations specifically for the screen industries. Confusion about the routes into the industry and career pathways should be addressed through developing an industry-wide taxonomy of training that clearly outlines what training would be most appropriate for each person, mapped onto different career pathways and levels. A signposting service for each region of the UK should be created which would collate information about the skills gaps and needs within that region and offer careers advice to both new entrants and the existing workforce. Finally, a more thorough exploration of how a shared apprenticeship model might work for the screen industries is vital. The current model does not work, but pilots that have taken place in Wales have proved to be successful and could be explored across the UK as a whole.
Find out more about SIGN’s work on skills and training in the screen industries: