Skills for Creative Industries

Actually, though, I liked the CBI reports, despite my niggles previously discussed.  It is really interesting to see how organisations like these who, ten years ago, scarcely knew we existed and certainly didn’t take us seriously, are now consciously developing a well informed expertise about the sector.   So many battles that we used to have, usually around their insistence on regarding us as just another sector, refusing to acknowledge our unique characteristics that demand that we be treated differently, now seem to have gone away.  Certainly, the CBI makes a point of recognising a number of things about us that seem to have influenced their approach.

Their report on the Skills Needs of the sector is both good and readable, the latter always a pleasant surprise!  In particular, I am interested in their open acknowledgement that the business environment around us has changed.  When I first set up Cida Co,  (new branding for CIDA – catch up!), nearly twelve years ago,  there was no doubt that the UK was, and was perceived to be, ahead of the game.  Our creativity was regarded as second to none, and our capacity and commitment to strengthening the sector was both the envy and the model for countries across the world.  Now we are still regarded as leaders but there is no doubt that other countries, and emerging economies in particular, are challenging us with the initiatives they are taking to build their own creative economies.  Interesting story , quite old but relevant:  New Orleans is a favourite place for movie makers, partly to do with the financial incentives offered to companies to make big films there.  When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, at least half a dozen big budget films were in production.   I happened to be working in Tampa Bay, Florida, at the time, and it was fascinating to watch how fast they moved to contact the producers and woo them to come to Tampa to finish their films.  Of course, so did many other US cities who are all old hands at this game, but Tampa won by the sheer audacity of the financial breaks it offered.  In terms of contribution to the local economy in revenue and jobs, they reckoned it was worth going the extra mile to secure the business.  Once secured, of course, they then went to work on ensuring that the producers had the knowledge, contacts and relationships to come back again and again.

This is what is happening everywhere now.  When we first went to work in Singapore in 2006, developing the competency framework for the whole of the creative sector (650 jobs from creative director to roadie, 27 sub sectors), we found a sector that was bemused by the sudden Govt interest in it.  Under Govt guidance, only students with the lowest results were allowed to do creative courses; if you had any brains, you were put to graduate in other professional disciplines.  All the sector entrepreneurs and employers that we met, and we met hundreds, felt that they were working in a non-supportive society; no one took them seriously; the challenges were enormous, not least in that to support a viable business, working internationally was essential, the market simply wasn’t big enough in Singapore;  the quasi-autocracy that exists there was non-conducive to developing the maverick tendencies so characteristic of creatives; and there was huge cynicism and not a little suspicion about the new interest that the Govt were displaying.   By the time we finished, some three years later, however, the mood had changed.  The Govt influenced newspaper, on my last day there, had a front page feature photograph of an attractive 18 year old student alongside a positively approving article detailing how she had won a scholarship to the leading National University to study accountancy and had thrown it over in order to study fine art. Mind-boggling!!  We left in 2009 and since then Singapore’s creative sector has gone from strength to strength – and, of course, being Singapore with its inimitable approach to sophisticated thinking, coherent analysis and joined up policy making (why is this so impossible for other countries – like ours?), their investment to achieve their desired status as Creative Hub for S E Asia includes “work with the Ministry of Education to enhance creative writing and drawing skills at the pre-school, primary and secondary levels; and an enhanced National Scriptwriting Competition to help give exposure to emerging talent in publishing, film and digital media.  Singapore has also introduced a Productivity and Innovation tax credit covering activities including R&D and design expenditure. Successful UK companies are already locating there – Oscar-winning animation company Double Negative has just opened their first non-London office in the East Asian capital.” (CBI report, 2011)  At every level, from preschool to employment, there is a coherent package of skills support that enriches and strengthens the capacity of the sector to succeed and contribute.  What do we do in the UK? We kill off Creative Partnerships (with all its flaws, still the most imaginative Govt intervention in Education for some time), reduce funding to the arts, cut funding for HE creative courses and withdraw support for creative businesses.  Great stuff.

But actually our problems are more deep seated than that.  The report ironically demonstrates that our employers have more problems getting people with literacy and numeracy skills than they do with IT skills.  This matters – and it matters greatly to us.  The need for us, our sector, to intervene imaginatively in helping young people become literate and numerate is beyond measure.  For years now, I have been fascinated by the fact that I can usually tell when someone went to school by their capacity to spell and construct a grammatical sentence – it makes for a bit of fun when recruiting, if nothing else!  But now, it’s a question of actual literacy.  Being able to put together a comprehensible letter or CV!  It’s deeply shocking.

A point that particularly interested me was the CBI recommendation around Universities: Universities and business need to collaborate more closely on course development, with both investing time and resources into developing relationships. This was interesting because of the genuinely innovative partnership we have been developing with the University of Leeds and their Arts and Humanities faculty.   I seem to have spent such a lot of time arguing with HE, not just in England but all over the world – everywhere I go, I find massive disparity between the knowledge and skills that graduates emerge with and the actual knowledge and skills they need to be useful members of a work team.  Employers everywhere complain about it.  The graduates themselves complain about it. Universities are fully aware of it but don’t listen – they remain convinced they are right – it’s endlessly frustrating.   The thing is that the academics  are all surrounded by bright minds at every level, and have the opportunity for thinking, exploring, testing and even failing in a way that most of us would kill for.  But it all seems to be being wasted –  I’m back on my old hobby horse but the truth is I want University to teach people to think, to analyse, to appraise, to take risks – and to have the confidence to do so.  I’ll teach them practical skills when they come to me – but if they come armed with confidence, the ability to make connections between ideas, to build on other people’s ideas, to know how to communicate and to research, to marshall that research  (including, god help us, compiling databases) and to learn quickly with a real sense of deadlines,  then that’s when they are of use to me.

Anyway, working with Leeds University has given me a chance to do some experimenting – we  have been commissioned by the Arts and Humanities faculty to work with post doctoral researchers to help them ‘commercialise’ or widen the impact of their research.  It’s been wonderful!  Working in the particularly esoteric worlds of post doctoral research in this faculty has nevertheless give Keith and me the chance to think laterally and to engage this remarkable group of people in an adventure that they simply would never have thought of previously (pretty much as Keith and I would never have thought of their work as fallow ground!)  We are mixing their extraordinary academic knowledge with hard edged practicality and, so far, the marriage seems pretty good!  So I want it to go on, of course.

Quite separately, a University invited me to run my Creative Entrepreneur master class for some MA students recently –  I do this for creative entrepreneurs all over the world and they love it:  it is one of the most popular things we do – but the feedback I got from the tutor afterwards was that the students found it ‘too realistic, too frightening’ – and these were Master degree level students!  The disparity between academia and real life just gets wider and wider and we have to do something about it.  I think we are going to be doing some interesting work with Leeds University so watch this space!

So now I’m off to prepare for the new season – working with creative entrepreneurs and mentors in Leeds, Middlesbrough and York;  training 200 creative entrepreneurs in Lagos and Abuja; providing the keynote Carte Blanche (provocation) on Skills for the European Culture Forum in Brussels; and working with both creative and cross sector entrepreneurs in Harare.  Should be fun!

Anamaria Wills

The CBI reports available on