Graduates need not apply

Recent arts graduate Gemma Whitham assesses the prospects for those, like her, seeking employment in the arts.

Nobody can deny that when it comes to young people, the arts are fantastic. Every region in the UK boasts performing arts companies for young people, and national youth companies in dance, drama and music not only exist — they’re well respected. But according to a recent Labour Force Survey, arts graduates were the second-most unemployed graduate group. Even worse, the reality of funding cuts is that arts professionals are losing their jobs and then applying for the same roles as these unlucky graduates. With employers consistently asking for a minimum of one year’s experience, the adverts for these roles may as well read: ‘graduates need not apply’.

This begs the eternal question — how does an arts graduate become an arts professional?

Choose a ‘Graduate Scheme’?

In the arts, getting onto one of these is easier said than done.

A quick look on Milkround, “The UK’s most widely used student and graduate job website”, is immediately disheartening. There is no direct search parameter for the arts. The positions available are from companies such as Experian, UIA Insurance and BMI Research, and frankly, I’m not sure my arts degree qualifies me.

A similar search on Prospects throws up positions in retail and design companies. The best opportunity I can find is an ‘International Graduate Scheme’ with Gi2C, a company that does offer schemes in the arts, but bases you in China. Where are the graduate schemes offered by theatre companies, dance companies and arts venues?



Programmes such as Creative Employment have dedicated funding to supporting the creation of paid internship opportunities in England for young people aged 16–24 wishing to pursue a career in the arts.

Great! But the Creative Employment website reveals the catch:

“All new paid internship opportunities funded by the Creative Employment Programme need to be filled by a Job Seeker Allowance (JSA) claimant.”

Sounds worthy at first. But if you’re supporting yourself in a part-time role, whilst looking for your first arts job, you’re not eligible to apply. It’s ironic and frustrating that by not claiming benefits you’re cutting yourself off from key opportunities that could be the start of your career.

There is, however, a ‘loophole’. There are stories of companies allowing employed people to ‘sign on’ in order to be eligible. Great, if you’re privy to this information, but what if you don’t know about it? Or what if you’re cripplingly honest (as I tend to be) and squeamish about quitting a job to claim JSA to qualify for a position? What if you feel it’s fundamentally dishonest?

That’s not to criticise the programme, or any arts companies that use the resource, as their internships are the helping hand that many need.

But is the best advice we can now give to claim benefits because that’s where the opportunities lie?

Are degrees over-rated?

It sometimes seems as if taking an apprenticeship is more likely than a degree to result in employment in the arts. And it’s not without reason. In comparison to graduate schemes, the Government’s Find an apprenticeship service has over 100 apprenticeship opportunities related to the arts. The Royal Opera House, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The West Yorkshire Playhouse and Northern Ballet are just a few of the organisations offering apprenticeships in a wide range of departments. And according to the website, “90% of apprentices stay in employment after finishing their apprenticeship”. Not only are the opportunities in the arts vast, the statistics look positive too. With apprenticeships offering skills training with a wage, it’s easy to see why people might see these as the more promising choice.

But a more cynical person would question if there are companies who use apprenticeships to gain funding with no obligations to apprentices’ future career paths. In 2012 Tess Lanning highlighted that the growth in apprenticeships in 2012 mirrored a reduction in workplace training for adults. She suggested that companies were simply shifting their employees onto apprenticeships, rather than footing the bill for the necessary training of their staff, implying that these companies are more concerned with gaining government funding and getting their menial tasks done cheaply (minimum wage for an apprentice is £2.73 per hour) than actually helping people achieve their ambitions.


What’s the answer?

Well, apprenticeships are one way forward. Despite my cynical remarks, an apprenticeship should be a chance to learn vital skills in your chosen industry. It should fall to the individual company to make commitments and provide valuable training and further opportunities.

Universities need to do more.

Edge Hill and Liverpool John Moores have graduate/postgraduate dance companies that create touring professional dance works. This is a model that could transfer across all arts degrees: a graduate company that gives professional experience. These companies could also be run by graduates, with positions in fundraising, outreach, stage management, administration, all being filled by graduates looking for their first job in the industry.

In addition, more responsibility needs to be taken by local councils. A recent article in The Guardian praised Sheffield Council’s new scheme ‘RISE Sheffield’ created in partnership with Gradcore Social Enterprise. The gist of the scheme is that the council and Gradcore target small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and encourage them to hire graduates from the city’s universities onto six-month paid internships by offering to do all the recruitment legwork for them. The intention is that a permanent position will follow after the six months. The results in Sheffield are promising, and not just for the graduates: “For every £1 invested in RISE there was a return on investment of £5.71, according to an evaluation of the pilot.”

Perhaps other cities could copy this scheme and encourage the participation of regional arts organisations and charities. This scheme is not necessarily about putting graduates to work, but rather using their potential as fantastic resources for SMEs.

In short — ask not what you can do for a graduate but what a graduate can do for you!

An outlook, I believe, that should be welcomed by all industries.

Moving forwards

I know that asking arts companies to provide more for those who are struggling is not a simple matter. I also appreciate that there are those who are already trying to help. Whilst I would urge companies to look at the five-times investment return in RISE Sheffield as an argument for new ventures, I do understand this is a big financial risk in such uncertain times. So perhaps the answer is smaller. Let’s get rid of the idea of having connections and focus on creating a supportive arts community — on creating connections.

I’m inspired by Arts Emergency, the “national network of volunteers coming together to create privilege for people without privilege”. The service offers students aged 16–19 mentoring opportunities with arts professionals and on-going access to an arts network. Unfortunately this service is limited to ‘young people’ but future ventures could be open to all.

What if each arts company committed to being a part of a city-based volunteer network for the arts? The network could provide mentors, Q&As, masterclasses and, most importantly, a chance to meet others in similar situations. Trying to make it in the arts without help is a lonely business.

Maybe by taking responsibility and working towards a stronger arts community we can recognise the value of every individual who is passionate about working in the arts, and help them to achieve their ambitions where we can.

Gemma Whitham is Youth & Community Project Assistant at Yorkshire Dance.

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