Why is the UK creative industry still missing the most promising young people? It's Nice That Feature

  • Isabel Farchy
  • Bryony Stone
After four years as a teacher, Isabel Farchy set up Creative Mentor Network, which grew out of an increasing frustration with the way schools prepare young people from low-income backgrounds for careers in the creative industries. Two years on, the charity has worked with close to 100 young people, matching them up with mentors working in the creative industries. Now, working with the sectors leading organisations with Grey, BBH, IDEO, XL Recordings and Wieden + Kennedy among them, Isabel explains what’s causing the lack of diversity in the creative industries.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport last month reported a creative industries’ “jobsboom”, with employment growing at four times the rate of the UK workforce as a whole.
Yet diversity and inclusion in the creative sector still hasn’t been solved. As noted in Jon Snow’s Mactaggart lecture last week, research shows that in journalism, 80% of editors were educated at private or grammar schools, compared with 88% of the British public now at comprehensives.‍
To use another example, the Work Foundation recently produced a skills audit of the UK film and screen industries commissioned by the BFI. The report highlighted that shockingly, only 3% of the sector’s production workforce is from BAME backgrounds. Given the creative industries’ London weighting and the city’s ethnic makeup, that figure should be closer to 18%.

The creative workforce is the future

As traditional jobs become increasingly obsolete, the future of employment is in creativity. In March, the charity Teach First released research revealing that poor social mobility in the UK will result in a shortage of 3 million highly skilled workers by 2022, in jobs that require greater levels of innovative and lateral thinking. To meet these changes in our economy we need to be making this jobs market accessible to everyone, not just the privileged few.
From an equality standpoint, that these opportunities should not be accessible to all is problematic. If we fail to make the creative industries seem open to all now, we’re excluding a part of our society from affluence in the future.
Diversity benefits businesses. In a recent study, Harvard Business Review found companies with a diverse workforce to be 70% more likely to capture new business. Fundamentally, creative businesses are aware of the business and moral imperative to improve the representation amongst their workforce. Diversity has become it’s own cottage industry in the creative sector, with a growing number of organisation campaigning for better representation. So why are things slow to change?

Lack of awareness of opportunities

Both reports mentioned in the introduction of this article – from The Work Foundation and The Sutton Trust – point to a lack of awareness of opportunities in the creative industries as the main cause for poor diversity figures. Our impact study shows a similar lack of awareness. Over 90% of our alumni agreed that because of our mentoring, they now have an understanding of the different roles and career paths and feel more confident about pursuing a career within the creative industries. It’s not hard to imagine that young people who don’t know anyone who works in advertising, won’t know what a creative, a strategist or a producer is. And as we all know, it’s difficult to be what you can’t see. One of our graduates, Momina, a Sixth Form student from Newham, summarises this point really well.
“I’ve met so many people who work in different areas – my mentor is really nice and has introduced me to loads of people who have roles that I didn’t even know existed. It’s crazy! I like to be very organised and can be a bit of a neat freak with everything I do. I love organising things for my friends and I didn’t realise there was a job out there that I could use this for. The creative side put together with planning, it’s in my DNA to be like that and I’ve found out I can do it as a career and there’s money in it!"“At school you get taught that a career is doctor, engineer, lawyer… all the basics but you don’t get taught what you can do on the creative side. People see that as a hobby!”
What this means is, that only those young people willing to take what seems like a risky option, and confident enough to ignore advice from parents are able to access this jobs market. But what about the rest? And what is causing this lack of awareness?

Risk averse schools and parents

In schools and amongst parents in lower socio-economic communities, employment in the creative industries is perceived as precarious and not financially viable. Many of the students we meet at the schools we work with aren’t even considering those kinds of careers.

Current education agenda

The introduction of the Ebacc has resulted in a decline in uptake of creative subjects at GCSE level of 38,900 students – a fall of 8% from 2016 to 2017. And this affects poorer students in schools who don’t have the budget to offer those activities extracurricular.

Communication with schools

With ever-increasing university fees, many students are choosing to go straight into work after A Levels. If they want to attract diverse talent, employers need to be going into schools to talk about what they do. The creative industries needs to take responsibility for nurturing talent at an earlier age.

Lack of exposure to the world of work

One of the biggest problems is that schools’ performance is primarily measured on their exam results means that properly resourced careers support is not a priority. I should say at this point that all of the teachers I know would love to spend more time on this. But pressure to support students through exams, lack of budgets and constant changes to the exam system mean they never have enough time.
Over their school career, many students’ experience of the world of work is limited to two weeks during work experience. For those without the connections to find exciting placements, this experience can be less than inspiring. Far from being about CV building, work experience is about understanding the nuances of workplace behaviour. What people wear, how they communicate with each other, even the basic skills like email tone – are learned. So why do we leave students from low-income families to fend for themselves on this level?

Importance of social capital

More than any other sector, being successful in the creative industries relies on social capital – an ability to make and leverage social connections.
Research suggests that 60% of job vacancies are unadvertised. The so-called ‘hidden job market’ means that people skills are arguably more important than academic achievement.There are so many incredible mainstream schools up and down the country that support their students to achieve incredible success at exam level. But few who offer decent exposure to working environments, help understanding the value of building networks, and the opportunity to practice being able to present themselves and their ideas.
So why does lack of awareness have such a big impact? Research by the Education Endowment Foundation shows that young people who make four or more professional connections before they leave full-time education are five times more likely to be employed upon leaving education, and earn up to 18% more. To me, this isn’t really surprising.I’ve always found it bizarre that we expect children to make decisions about what they want to do when they leave school, based on such limited experience and understanding of the options. As if we would feel comfortable buying a house having only seen the front door.
Understanding what work is like and how to start out comes from talking to people about their experiences. And that’s the basis for our mentoring programme. Creative Mentor Network creates a connection between creative businesses, eager to create a more representative workforce, and diverse young talent in schools across London.As another of our students, Michael, explains “I always thought that Marketing was one huge department but there’s so much more to it that I wasn’t even aware of. Gareth took me to meet Account Handlers, Producers, all the people on the shoot I went on and I was able to have a calm conversation with them. I could ask them what I liked and find out more about the area I’m looking to get into. This scheme is very different to speaking to a careers teacher – I’ve been talking to someone who works in the industry and who really knows! It’s much more relaxed and a lot easier than competing for attention in a class of 30 or 40.”
We have just signed up 20+ new creative businesses, amongst them, Wieden + Kennedy, Grey, BBH and XL Recordings, Mother, IDEO and Airbnb – all really eager to open their doors to diverse applicants. And as we enter our third year, we’re scaling up so that in 2018 we’ll be able to offer mentoring to close to 200 young people across Greater London.As we do so, I find myself asking whether it should fall to the charitable sector to provide the missing link between the creative industries – our biggest, and fastest growing economy – and some of the brightest, most creative young people.

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