The Creative Workforce: Improving Standards, Improving Culture

Marice Cumber

Growing the size of the creative industries has been a stated ambition for government for more than fifteen years now. But why? To boost employment is the most obvious answer, but ultimately all sectors and businesses generate jobs. When it comes to the creative industries we should be asking not whether the sector generates jobs, it clearly does, but whether those jobs are any good or not, and whether they reflect an increasingly diverse population.

On that score, the sector performs badly – arguably more so than any other in the knowledge economy. Despite a predominantly graduate workforce, it has a number of disturbing characteristics that undermine its reputation. These include precarious working conditions, ‘zero-hours’ contracts, eroding wages, low levels of investment in training and a disproportionately white workforce, particularly in the senior occupations. Added to this of course is the endemic use of unpaid interns – a practice largely unheard of in this country thirty years ago, but which the creative industries can claim to have pioneered.

More recently, private sector employment practices have seeped into the public sector. The exploitation of interns and new entrants was a complaint once usually levelled against film production, designer fashion and commercial galleries. Now it’s a common feature of public galleries, arts centres and museums. Research in 2010 showed that more than a third of London’s museum interns didn’t even have their travel costs reimbursed, and for administrators facing funding cuts, an army of well-qualified curators and conservationists prepared to work for nothing has been simply too tempting.

Why does it matter so much for the creative industries? After all, other sectors are hardly immune from the problem. But over and above the problems of exploitation and injustice, there is also a profound social concern. After all, it is the creative workforce, whether in companies or public institutions, which are largely responsible for our nation’s cultural output. If private income and personal contacts are required to access film, publishing, visual arts or museum curatorship, then how can we expect the culture they produce to truly express British life?

As someone who has worked in Higher Education with design and media students for more than ten years, I am proud that the student population has become more diverse, with people from a multitude of cultural and learning backgrounds wanting to go to university and enter the creative industries. However, it feels increasingly as if I’m cheating them – promoting a sector that does not reflect the make-up of the student population and is only available to a privileged few. Our students might have the talent, skills and enthusiasm to be rightful employees within the creative and cultural industries, but – burdened with debt and facing daunting rental costs – without parental support then how on earth can they afford to work in them?

The problem might be a big one but, with employment legislation already in place, dealing with it is in some ways straightforward. Any new government coming to power in 2015 doesn’t need to launch a taskforce, appoint a tsar, consult with trade associations or commission any more research. It just has to do the right thing. These steps would be a good start:

  • All public funding bodies, from the Arts Council to the Technology Strategy Board, should make working conditions part of a grantee’s monitoring processes, with evidence of unpaid labour resulting in the suspension of funding. The same principle should be applied to production companies receiving contracts from public broadcasters, which should be monitored for use of free interns and runners.
  • Only internships that are paid should be included as ‘work’ in the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) reports, which are often used in university league tables.
  • Industry bodies and trade unions should establish a “ bad creative industries employer” website where people can anonymously post up evidence of unpaid internships and malpractice in the sector (asking graduates to volunteer for them is an example of this, in order to get round employment legislation).



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