The turbulence of the last year continues to impact everyone working in the creative industries but according to new research, there are positive developments as well.
The ScreenSkills Assessment 2021, supported by the BFI, gives a snapshot of skills issues affecting the UK screen industries although many of its conclusions can be extrapolated to the US.
Perhaps most critically for workforce development, it offers insights into adaptations to working practices that could remain longer-term; indicates skills shortages in some areas; and highlights a window of opportunity within which action can be taken to help build a fairer working culture.
The research charts changes from January 2020 to January 2021. It was a period of disruption that resulted in 11% workers moving to another area of screen or leaving the industry altogether (16%). New entrants were particularly affected as tightening budgets and restrictions to ensure crew health reduced work experience and trainee opportunities.
The evidence suggests that industry is facing new shortages, reflecting the fast pace at which industry is changing to adapt to new working practices and technologies.
“Many factors are playing a role but the pace at which industry is growing is perhaps the one that contributes most significantly,” the report finds.
In the first quarter of 2021, the combined total spend on film and high-end TV production was £878 million, the highest official Q1 figures on record (BFI, 2021).
“This level of growth drives an ever-increasing need for additional workers, which, when not satisfied, results in a rising competition to attract and retain workforce,” ScreenSkills says. “Productions are increasingly scaling up in size and the need for larger teams is worsening labor shortages. This, combined with workers leaving the sector on a temporary or permanent basis, or entrants not pursuing a career in shortage areas, exacerbates shortages and could inhibit growth further down the line.”
People Skills and Work-Life Balance
Almost half of employers interviewed reported having an increased awareness of the importance of valuing, trusting and looking after people since the COVID-19 pandemic, further echoing the importance of soft skills and possibly signposting a need for more “people skills” and a stronger HR function in the industry.
Half of employers thought that the pandemic helped to create or influence a fairer work culture for the future. Lessons learned include: embracing new technical solutions; avoiding business complacency; maintaining greater empathy with colleagues; and working more collaboratively as a sector to tackle common challenges.
Almost half of employers pointed to greater future emphasis on work-life balance. This followed last year’s survey by the Work Foundation (2020) which found that 78% of film and TV workers struggle to find such balance.
Increased remote working is likely to enable hiring from a wider geographical pool, according to 54% of survey respondents.
While there is little doubt that the use of — and confidence in — remote-working tools and processes has increased, respondents highlighted that effective communication skills are key to making them work. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital communication and interpersonal skills at all levels, from entrants to executives.
“To realise the benefits of remote working may require giving these skills as much weight as technical and creative skills,” the report suggests.
Role of Technology and VFX Shortage
The increased use of technology to enhance, speed up or replace existing practices was reported across screen sectors and departments.
Remote-working tools and technologies have become prevalent but the UK needs strong telecoms infrastructure and connectivity to make this an enduring change. The report says the sector may need to consider lobbying collectively for improved broadband infrastructure right across the UK.
Companies with established tech-enabled workflows, such as animation, games, post-production and VFX, reported the least amount of change per the report and were well prepared — at least in terms of infrastructure and equipment — for remote working.
Nonetheless, there are emerging difficulties in recruiting producer roles in post-production and VFX, along with engine coding skills in VFX and high-end technical operators for post-production.
“None of these are new roles, but they are likely to have been more in demand as a result of changes to working practices. If the shift in practices remains, then the shortages could move from short-term need to critical.”
The newly-created role of COVID-19 Supervisor is reported as another shortage area among film and high-end TV. The role’s place and function will evolve in line with the course of the pandemic but there’s a suggestion that COVID Supervisor and related COVID-19 safety roles, along with improved hygiene measures in the workplace, could have a place post-COVID in supporting more general virus and infection control among crews.
Workforce Diversity Remains Critical
Most employers responding to this study considered that there had been no impact from COVID on diversity among the screen workforce, but there is no robust evidence to confirm that view as yet. There is no indication that sector-wide efforts to improve representation have eased, but there are concerns that the less advantaged may have found it harder to withstand the financial impact of the disruption to production.
Caterina Branzanti, ScreenSkills head of research, who conducted the study, said: “COVID makes it challenging to compare the state of the industry with two years ago in the way we originally planned with this research, but did provide a fresh perspective on skills and workforce challenges and opportunities.”