Is the UK set to Experience a Creative Skills Shortage?

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

There's a lot of talk in the creative industry of an impending skills shortage. But where have these concerns come from? And perhaps more importantly, what's being done about it?

The creative industry has been the fastest growing in the UK for the best part of a decade. It employs 1 in 11 people and contributes £87m to the economy. But now the UK finds itself starting down the barrel of a creative skills shortage. Despite recently being pledged £150m of investment by the UK government, of which £2m has been specifically earmarked for a creative careers programme, there are plenty of people within the creative industry significantly concerned about a scarcity of skills. But where are these worries stemming from, and are they legitimate? Let’s take a look.

A Drop off in Creative Studies

Recent figures from the UK regarding how many students are studying creative subjects, from GCSE’s to degree level, do not make for encouraging reading. University applications for art and design subjects have dropped by 5%, although this is not far out of line with a more general drop in applications. 5% may not sound like a lot, but that equates to 14,000 students. And A Level results show that there has been a 3% drop in those accepted on to courses as well.

The latest GCSE results display a similar pattern – with 26,800 fewer students taking up art, design and technology subjects. The drop in uptake follows a trend that began with the move to make design and technology a non-compulsory GCSE in 2000.

A focus on promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects by recent governments has been blamed by many in the industry. It is not hard to see how this could cause a drop in subsequent A Level and degree studies, as students aren’t exposed to a subject early on in their development.

Likewise, with thousands fewer studying creative subjects at university level in the UK, it is not hard to see how a creative skills shortage could become a reality.

The Role of Brexit

Whichever way you voted, there’s no denying that the Brexit vote makes things more uncertain for businesses, in the short term at the very least. The potential loss of free-movement for EU workers could be devasting for many sectors, and none more so than the creative industry.

The Global Talent Report, which surveyed 250 businesses, found that 75% of UK creative businesses employed EU workers. It warns of a “disastrous talent shortage”, blaming a combination of reduced immigration and movement, limited EU-UK trade and the need for EU workers to apply for visas to live and work in the UK.

Interestingly, nearly 60% of those businesses surveyed said they were already dealing with a creative skills shortage.

Rapid Growth of the Sector

In the four years between 2011 and 2015 employment in the creative industry grew by 20% - over triple that of the wider economy. This is fantastic news for the economy and demonstrates the enormous value of our creative businesses here in the UK, but it’s not without some issues.

Essentially, this high growth is creating its own skills gaps, as well as rapidly changing the type of skills that the industry needs. Some in the industry however, are blaming out-dated recruitment processes for the perceived shortage. Admittedly, this is anecdotal, but it’s certainly an argument that bears hearing out – if we’re bad at identifying and retaining talent, that will only make things worse.

Is it Really All Doom and Gloom?

No, is the short answer. Some of the above statistics don’t make for pretty reading, but what’s encouraging is that there is action being taken to remedy it. We touched earlier on the government’s £150m investment into the creative industry, and there is also an £80m programme to link local students with possible employers and improve their creative skills.

And whilst the drop in those studying creative skills is concerning, art and design still remains one of the most popular degree subject choices, sitting third on the list of highest number of accepted applicants by subject. Added to this, falls in applicants are largely mirrored by wider trends.

Having said that, there is clearly some work to be done. More encouragement needs to be given to younger people to study creative subjects, and clearer pathways to creative employment need to be found. The creative industry is so valuable to the UK it simply cannot afford to let it fail.
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