Industry skills: No education, no future

Flexible studies and closer ties between educators and industry will prepare graduates for the rigours of the screen sector. David Hull reports.

In general terms, the past couple of decades have seen higher education gain a firm foothold as an important, if not essential, stepping stone for high school graduates seeking to the enter the workforce of their chosen profession. However, in film and television such  momentum has stalled through the existence of a disconnect between on- the-job experience and formal education. The screen industry has historically been a place where practitioners have worked their way up from the shop floor, honing their skills through sweat  and tears alongside more experienced colleagues. As such, the screen industry has been home to scepticism towards the modern graduate; the accusation being that no amount of classroom training can make a candidate ‘job ready’.

Outside of the long-established film school model – a flag flown most notably by the Australian Film and Television School (AFTRS) – educational and/or training institutions have faced a difficult choice between offering students practical training, specific to a job role,  or providing them with a strong foundation in a broad range of skills, in order to boost the chances of students finding a pathway to employment. Regardless, the integration of field placements into course programmes has become increasingly common, while  generally institutions have attempted – with mixed success – to forge closer to ties with employers.

Crucially, training programmes are receiving a significant shot in the arm through the increasing trend for practitioners to go ‘back to school’ to gain formal qualifications (or recognition of existing skills) through short or part-time courses. The fall-out is that the  importance of both tertiary and vocational education and training (VET) institutions is becoming more apparent throughout the industry.
The Sydney-based Television Technical Operators College (TOTC) has quickly established itself as a vital finishing school for those looking to enter into technical roles. Set up in response to a drastic skills shortage in the broadcast sector, TOTC offers advanced vocational  training to bridge the gap between education and industry.

“With respect to in-field arrangements with the industry, it’s absolutely imperative that we have those in order for TOTC to operate,” general manager Peter Musgrove tells Encore. TOTC’s Graduate Certificate trainees participated in over 270 in-field projects throughout  2008. Musgrove estimates that 40 percent of this crop of students came to the college with recognised prior learning but previously fell short of the skills and experience necessary to secure them employment in a significant job role

“We’ve had people who were doing, say, cable or audio assist but couldn’t get any further because they didn’t have the in-field experience. This course can, all of a sudden, pitch them to the next level. Students amass between 300 and 500 hours in the field and come out  with exactly what the industry wants: the ability to hold down a role straightaway.”
According to Musgrove, the broadcast industry was “having a lot of problems with people not being up-to-speed coming out  of Universities and TAFEs”, but rather than seeing TTOC as providing competition to these institutions, he sees it as providing a pathway to employment.

“What [Universities and TAFEs] can do is refine their so that the candidates coming to us are even better,” he says. “The industry is starting to ‘get it’. It’s [previously] been all rhetoric but now we’ve got 24 very skilled operators out there and within, say, a year they  will have filled another part of the skills gap.”

The other side of TOTC’s industry involvement relates to professional education for freelancers, equating to in excess of 500 seats taught across 24 courses last year.

We’re able to properly train freelancers in, say, moving from an SD to an HD environment; previously this didn’t happen and freelancers just learned by the skin of their teeth or did training that wasn’t structured.”

usgrove expects these short courses to prove even more popular in 2009 and he is hopeful of expansion beyond a freelance student base.

I expect there to be more pressure from broadcasters and other facilities to involve their internal staff in short course training,” he says. “If these people hold down technical roles these courses are suitable for them as much as freelancers.”


For its part, AFTRS is becoming more attuned to the needs of the industry, especially since the move of its Sydney site to the Fox Studios precinct, having previously been based to the city’s northwest. The change of location has delivered profound benefits, according to director of Production and Resources Peter Millyn.

“I don’t think any of us realised what a quantum shift would occur,” he explains. “Our previous site was out in the boonies and it was a real schlep to get there, but here we’ve been able to instigate a number of initiatives and, rather than AFTRS being an add-on to the  industry, we’re now arranged to engage with the industry.”

Millyn believes “the trend away from beginning on the shop floor and working your way up is really quite startling” with greater weight now being placed on training by screen industry employers.

“We’ve certainly noticed a pattern emerging where though a formal qualification doesn’t guarantee you a job, it does put you in a place where you’re likely to be considered,” Millyn says. “The reality is it’s the experience and body of work that you’ve built up during the  degree that’s going to count rather than doing the degree itself. There is difficulty acquiring and accessing people in your working life to pass on the knowledge to you, so you’re also now seeing practitioners coming back for refreshers and that wasn’t the case  previously.”

In terms of the success rate of graduates going straight into employment, Millyn says this largely depends on the demand within a student’s chosen craft area. “In some areas there would be 80 or 90 percent of people going on to employment in their chosen field, whereas there’s a greater fall off with directors – more like 60 percent of these would go on to direct. The career path is less certain for directors, writers and producers – the pointy end where projects are generally conceived and developed – due to the sheer number  of players out there and shrinking opportunities.”

AFTRS now offers a Graduate Certificate, which takes half as long to compete as a Graduate Diploma and involves evening and weekend study. Another new offering is a Graduate Diploma in Screenwriting, now able to be taken part-time. Millyn says that previously the  necessity for screenwriters to devote two years to full-time study was proving to be a problem.

“It’s now part-time and delivered in short, sharp intensives. We’ve had a staggering response to that with the number of applications far greater than we expected and the quality is very high. This tells us that there was a number of we weren’t engaging with because of  the structure and the timing of our courses.”

AFTRS has also introduced a generalist full-time screen arts course in the form of the Foundation Diploma. With no prerequisites for entry, such a course arguably brings it into direct competition with the Sydney Film School, which provides a Diploma in Screen (one  year full-time, two years part-time) and a Certificate IV in Screen (one semester fulltime, one year part-time), with an Advanced Diploma soon to be introduced.

Our goal is not so much to service the industry’s need as much as the demand for knowledge,” says the Sydney Film School’s head of studies Leslie Oliver. “We’re slowly developing the course and have gone from a half-year Certificate to a one-year Diploma.”

In terms of the make up of the school’s intake, around half are international students with the rest split between school-leavers, people coming from other careers and those already working in this industry but “are perhaps in a narrow field and want to see the whole  process”.

“We do show the whole process and we’ll make around 120 films this year, so we’re not specialised in teaching technical technique,” Oliver says. “What’s most needed and most valuable is to teach people how to drive their own projects and scripts, so we’re not really a technical school.

“We don’t feel there’s a need for people who can operate a camera – a lot of people can do that – but there’s a need for people with an idea, who can pull that together and make things happen.”

Oliver says feedback from the industry in relation to its graduates is very positive. “We get people taking our students and saying they’d like more of them. The strength our students have (acknowledging that technology is changing all the time and every employer and  every system is different, so you can’t really train people for that) is they are self-reliant; they can stand on their own two feet and show initiative.”

In the Melbourne market, the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) strengthened its position in 2007 when it became a faculty of The University of Melbourne. As a training institution servicing the visual and performing arts, VCA provides Bachelor and Masters courses  and Graduate Diplomas in Film and Television, in addition to foundations and short courses. Head of Film and TV Ian Lang tells Encore that its students’ high calibre and high degree of collaboration means that arguably VCA graduates constitute a working section of  industry in themselves.

“There are a consistent number of achievements, so, in fact, when you look at the people coming out of VCA you say that this is in fact an industry group; people who graduate tend to go out and create work for others,” Lang says. “We don’t specialise from an early  stage, though students can do this at a post-graduate level. In our undergraduate programs we encourage everyone to become well-grounded filmmakers. The program is now 43 years old; it’s been honed by decades of experience and is now one of the best film  schools in the country. With the amalgamation with The University of Melbourne we’ve been able to invest $5 million in high definition equipment and we’re now leading world’s best practise, but always the technology is at the service of story; never the other way  around.

“The reason people come here is not the equipment and though we take pride in our teaching what graduates get most of it is the strong relationships they build with other students who become their peers for life.”
There are also interesting developments going on in the provision of vocational education, where broadly it could be said that courses are targeted at a competency level – as opposed to film school where students are required to apply more of a critical approach. What VET institutions have in common with their higher education counterparts is the goal of refining course offerings to better meet industry needs. This has become a particularly pressing issue in the wake of rapid advances in digital technology and dwindling opportunities for the on-the-job training; one that has seen broadcasters and other media companies get behind the introduction of an education benchmark for engineering and technology professionals in the form of the Media Industry Technologist Certification ( www.mitc.tv).
Melbourne-based Open Channel, with support from the State Government’s ‘Reframing the Future’ training initiative, has been coordinating industry consultation towards formulating a guide (in the form of a booklet) for Victorian VET institutions to meet subsidy guidelines for the Federal Government’s newly revised Screen and Media Training Package, while also creating better training structures to
meet skills needs and shortages within the industry. The initiative has seen Open Channel conduct in-depth forums involving employers and practitioners from the industry, through which the organisation has gained enormous insight into the skills needs in the local screen sector and, in particular, the challenges facing the VET sector.
“The VET sector is looking at what people in the industry want and what they want is people to be on-the-job trained,” says Open Channel’s training manager Daniel Schultheis. “There’s a trend in the VET sector for courses to go through a bit of everything and, perhaps, have students make a short film, but you’re not 100 percent where you need to go. There are many people in the industry who didn’t go through formal training themselves. We have 40 or 50 training plans being developed for this booklet to be sent out to the VET sector in Victoria.”
Schultheis says the reaction from the local industry has been very positive, with practitioners keen to get involved during production downtimes.
“The industry needs to be vocal about what it wants and, from the other end, you need to be practical; you need to be aware that busy production times are not the best time to be contacting these people.”
Open Channel is a member of the national network of  screen resource organisations Screen Development Australia (along with Metro Screen in NSW, Queensland’s QPIX, South Australia’s Media Resource Centre and Western Australia’s Film and Television Institute), which banded together in 1999. Its course offering includes a Certificate IV, Certificate III, Advanced Diploma Foundations and short courses.
“Qualifications are becoming valued and, whether it’s film school or training or instruction at VET level, you’re  finding institutions that have a certain type of expertise,” Schultheis says. “There’s a trend where there’s less of a general course where you do a little of everything, and I think this approach serves the industry a little better.”
Servicing the Sydney/NSW market, Metro Screen  delivers accredited training in the form of a full-time Certificate IV in Screen and Media and a range of accredited and unaccredited short courses.
From next year, it will offer a part-time Certificate IV as well as a variety of short courses at Advanced Diploma level, which Training manager Claire Morgan says will go some way towards meeting the changing needs of the industry. According to Morgan, the overriding trend in terms of demand was for increased flexibility and Metro Screen staff are particularly excited about the prospect of offering a
part-time course.
“We’ve had a lot of people calling up to ask about it because these days the trend is going towards flexibility where they can study on their own and at their own pace,” she says. “Our students are a diverse group; typically in the short courses they range from those working in the industry who want to up-skill to those who want a career change, while in the full-time course it’s split between those who
want to change careers, those who come straight out of [high] school and those people who have perhaps already made a film but want to move on and broaden their skills.
‘We’re one of the only screen and media training centres to work closely with the Department of Education and Training [which funds Metro Screen to run scholarship programs for emerging artists in the fields of film, TV and digital arts] and with them we work directly to target skills shortages.
“In vocational education listening to the industry is pretty much the cornerstone of what we do.”


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.