Lyn Gardner muses on the new Arts Group report Emerging workers: a fair future for entering the creative industries

“I think we should be asking why, according to the report, 40% of graduates entering the cultural sector do so through working unpaid — not least because it has massive implications in terms of access. It immediately discounts all those who can’t afford to work unpaid, and particularly disadvantages those whose family home doesn’t happen to be near London” [and that] “so many creative jobs are not advertised”

The point about advertising is a good one, especially since the dismal handling of local arts marketing often extends to the handling of advertising jobs and placements — and in some cases this lack might seem to go hand-in-hand with a certain level of cronyism in an organisation. However, remember that Skillset announced plans last November for student placements…

“to set out new rules for work experience placements, limiting them to no more than 160 hours and forcing employers to advertise the schemes”

One of the comments on the article also makes a good point about what might be called ‘forced volunteering’…

“part-time employment on paper, and in reality full-time hours with no overtime”

But I think any national debate on the topic needs to distinguish between different lengths and types of internship, and take care to distinguish between work placements, internships, volunteering, and self-volunteering. A casual four week “taster” internship in the summer after graduation is not the same as a proper one year internship. A six week work-experience break in the second year of your degree is not the same thing as volunteering for two evenings a week at the local art house cinema over a period of many years. A below minimum-wage internship for a little rural arts charity is not the same as helping to organise and market Glyndebourne with full expenses and accommodation. Also take into account the many ways in which the web makes it possible to “self-volunteer” for something that needs to be done — work for which there are far fewer or no barriers in terms of class, income or geographic location. Getting serious mentoring / shadowing as part of an internship is also a factor, rather than just licking envelopes and making the tea. There’s a difference between genuine ‘creative production’ placements for creatives and placements involving bog-standard ‘secretarial skills’ administration of the arts. Having full expenses offered, or not, also needs to taken into account in weighting the value of the work. For instance, it costs £28 a day for someone from Stoke-on-Trent to volunteer in Birmingham (an £18 pre-9pm rail ticket, the cost of lunch and then a pack of pack of sandwiches before the rush-hour journey home). Even a short four-week internship would thus cost the volunteer around £560.

And then there’s the need to measure the success factor. Is the internship route really a reliable way of relatively speedily funnelling large numbers of young people into well-paid full-time arts jobs, or in many cases is it just a rather expensive way for parents to get an unemployed kid out of the house for six months? Does it in many instances actually damage long-term prospects, which might have been better served by getting a real menial gruntwork job and working one’s way up?

Of course the issue is being raised at this moment in the media partly for political purposes. It allows the (possibly rather futile) argument to be made for ring-fencing the funding of creative industries access schemes for those who are perceived to be disadvantaged, and thus aims to protect such schemes from the seemingly inevitable budget cuts. Cuts which have to be implemented by whichever party wins the election. That those schemes, and their fellow-travelling ‘arts audience outreach’ schemes, often have a poor or dubiously-evidenced record of long-term success is nudged aside in the face of the threat.