Thursday, 28 July 2011

That's what I go to school for....

A couple of days ago we had some visitors to the Jeremy Kyle studio; a party of work experience teenagers, all of whom were still at school, and who were here under the ITV Inspire scheme. We ran a typical show opening and chat sequence and they had the chance to try their hands at the various positions in a TV studio from director down to cable basher. It was a busy morning, so I didn't get chance to chat with any of them in any detail, but it was clear that they were all very keen, motivated and quick to learn, and quite a few expressed an interest in coming back to sit in on a real show.

Now, this is a little different from our normal visitor profile; our typical guest is late teens or early twenties and is either part way through a university degree or has just completed one. So just how did our young visitors compare to our typical older ones? After all, they didn't have the benefit of several years of Uni education behind them......

They were good. VERY good.

In fact it was quite scary just how quickly they picked up all the different studio roles, and how motivated they all were. Although they may not have had the technical knowledge of a college student, they were all so committed to giving their best that after a couple of rehearsals they ran a show with minimal intervention from us and it worked! In comparison, some (although I must stress not all!) of our older visitors, who should really have impressed us, have had all the drive of a wet lettuce and VERY patchy technical knowledge.

All of which leads me to the real reason for writing this article. When our young visitors come round in a couple of years to looking at THEIR university options, they'll have a lot to consider. Particularly the fact that when they finish their chosen courses and graduate they'll have two things: a piece of paper with "Degree" written on it and a bill in excess of £30,000.

That's a very expensive piece of paper. But of course it will help them get a job in the industry won't it?

Ah. Sorry. It won't. First off, in spite of what many lecturers will tell you, there are hardly ANY actual jobs on offer in TV. There ARE freelance opportunities, but there is a LOT of competition for these.

But you still have to get a degree to get the knowledge to work in TV right?

Oops, sorry again. You don't.

When I chat to our older visitors who are in the middle of these courses, it becomes clear that although they ARE learning useful things, they're doing it in a very long drawn out and expensive way. The knowledge they seem to gain is knowledge which we could teach them in a much shorter period, or they could easily find out for themselves by reading back issues of Sound On Sound. Yes some of them are very keen, motivated and willing to learn, but I suspect they'd be the same if they'd walked in when they were 17 like our visitors this week. Suddenly that piece of paper is looking less useful.

Now please don't think I'm tearing apart the whole higher education system. There's a lot of "serious" degrees which WOULD impress us, such as music, electronics or electrical engineering, but the good sound-based ones seem to be few and far between. Surrey's Tonmeister course (for which you need to be at least grade 7 with an instrument) is highly regarded, as are some from LIPA and Salford University. If you're not looking at a traditional university, then somewhere like the National Film School or Ravensbourne are worth a look. For what it's worth, I'd take a look first at the shorter industry-led courses at somewhere like SSR in Manchester or London ). You'll learn just as much as with a degree and come out with a considerably smaller debt....

It's worth bearing in mind that the standard BBC training, the "A" course as it was known, was a mere 3 months long, yet managed to give you everything you needed to start working in TV the moment you completed it. You were still a trainee for your first three years, but at the end of that period you'd completed all your training AND had nearly three years real-world experience. The entrance requirements to join the BBC as a sound assistant in the first place were O-levels in maths, english and ideally physics. As well as a passion for sound, drive, curiosity and motivation, which were expected even in an 18-year old applicant. If you were the sort of person who took their toys apart as a child to see how they worked, you were perfect.

Hmm. That word "motivation" yet again. It seems to have come up a few times since I started this. And it's worth repeating: our young guests were motivated and keen in a big way, even though they didn't have a huge store of technical knowledge to help them. THAT is what makes a good TV trainee. We'll do the rest......


  1. Jake, while I agree with you on your main point, things have changed since the days when we joined the industry.

    Back in the seventies and eighties the BBC were actively recruiting technical staff. And I mean actively. Their recruitment department knew the sort of people they were looking for - the ones who took their toys apart; the ones who looked behind the screen of the television; dare I say it, the slightly autistic ones. The BBC knew that these types would let their own curiosity and motivation help them learn for themselves all they needed to know in the industry. They also knew where to find us.

    I left school at sixteen, with just O-levels, I didn't want to go back to academic education. I was bored with it. With the kids that were only there because they had to be - with no intention of learning anything. With the teachers who didn't know any better - who'd never left school themselves, never worked in the real world. I applied for, and was offered, a few jobs. Apprenticeships at some of the big engineering companies in the area. Perhaps I should have taken one of those. But I was also offered a different education at a technical college. All the students were there through choice. All wanted to learn. And all the lecturers had worked in real jobs before choosing to go into teaching to pass on their real world experience. I left there with an Ordinary National Diploma, and a wide overview of all areas of engineering technology.

    While I was at the technical college, the BBC recruitment people came looking. It was 1982 - the year that Channel 4 was just starting up, and breakfast television was beginning. The television industry was expanding at one of its highest rates. They interviewed me at the college and said they would be in touch. It was much later in the year when they called me back for a formal interview. When the offered me a job they said that the second interview had just been a formality - they had already decided I was going to work for them.

    Twelve years passed. The BBC was now run by accountants - those who knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Those who saw experienced staff as just numbers on spreadsheets. They would rather make quick savings than think about bringing in more work in the future. My studio was not making enough money for its size, so they closed it and made me redundant. Bad times.

    But the start of a whole new world. There were no jobs - but there was plenty of work. I offered my services as a freelance, and never looked back. In my days at the BBC I had received a really good training. At first I had worked in many different departments, so gained a wide and varied knowledge of television. Over the years I had become more of a specialist, as a studio vision engineer. Now as a freelance I can use my specialist skills wherever there is work. And my wider experience is invaluable in the modern broadcasting industry, where the barriers between departments are so much more flexible.

    So what about young people joining our industry today? How do they get through the first door? There aren't the same sort of apprenticeships that there were in our day. Join as a 'runner' and hope to get in that way? That may work for production jobs, but what about technical jobs? There are fewer and fewer staff jobs anyway - and how do you start as a freelance if you don't have experience and reputation? So no, you certainly don't need a degree to be able to do the job, but sadly I think you would need a degree to be able to GET a job in the industry.

  2. Unfortunately, to get ANY degree will soon require a massive outlay and subsequent long-term debt. I'm not against ALL degrees; I just want people to think very carefully before they sign up for something which may be poor value when they graduate. There ARE some H.E. qualifications which in my opinion are very worthwhile; I'd be very happy to see more electrical engineering graduates coming to see us for example.

    Maybe I'm unusual, but as long as I'm across our visitors CVs then I'll try to judge people on their merits, not necessarily their paperwork...

  3. Hi Jake, interesting article, if a little disheartening for me. I have just finished my post graduate degree at Salford. (they do have a fantastic sound research department which sadly I had very little contact with.) I have a huge interest in sound mixing and post production and am currently looking to estabish myself in the field.

    For me your article rings true, my under graduate media degree was very fragmented without the practicle experience that is absolutly vital. When I finished I got a job in advertising but always wanted to still try and break into the post production field. I made a tough desicion to go back to university but this time was much more considered about my choice. I did my homework, researched courses and spoke to people and Salford offered the practical experience as well as giving post grad students access to extra projects which for me was a brilliant chance to further develop.

    At the moment I feel I made the right choice. Even though the job hunting is really tough I feel confident and while I search I keep on trying things and trying to learn on my own. I would never have applied for jobs in this industry without having the level of knowledge that my post graduate course gave me.

    Don't get me wrong leaving work was a massive commitment and the debt is certainly not something to be taken lightly but I guess what I'm getting at is that I can see this argument from both sides of the coin, many courses don't offer students the skills that employers want but if you make the right decisions and apply yourself then higher education can work. I hope! (speak to me in 12 months and we will see if I'm still so optimistic then.)

  4. Hi Adam, and thank you for your thoughts.

    As I said in the original article, I'm not against all forms of higher education, and I do hold Salford in quite high regard having had a number of their students as visitors. My concern about degrees in sound-based subjects is not that they aren't useful, but rather that there may be quicker and cheaper ways of gaining the same knowledge.

    It seems that you're not the sort of person to shy away from making difficult decisions, and that you clearly are very committed to following your dreams; these are the sort of qualities which will hopefully make you stand out to any potential future employer.

    Also, please bear in mind that I can only speak for the operational and engineering side of TV; it's entirely possible that you may see a TV job or contract offered in a related area which has a degree as one of its conditions.

    Best wishes for the future!

  5. Jake,

    I've had a read through your blog, most interesting.

    In by view, essentially the problem is the problem with industry structure. When there were a few large monolithic companies and regulated and monitored standards (by the IBA) highly trained and skilled staff were needed and the BBC trained for the the industry.

    Now the industry is made up of many smaller companies and the career paths are less obvious. University intake has gone up from less than 10% of the 18 year olds to perhaps 40% and everything is "a degree".

    The people who would have joined as "tech ops" in the 1980s now tend to do a degree. Whether making them pay £30k for it (plus living costs) is a good idea is another question but I would say a degree is a worthwhile lifetime investment.

    Sadly I'm less convinced that a career in broadcasting operations (however super the job can be) is something I could recommend to my teenage son. I somehow doubt it would be the career for life that it has been for those who spent time in the green huts of Evesham in the 1980s.