When you’re a young person going through school, college and university, you’ll be told almost endlessly that you need to get work experience in order to land yourself a job in the future. While this advice is absolutely correct (you need to build your skills and develop a work ethic), unfortunately it doesn’t do much to help the tens of thousands of students who are trying to get work experience in highly sought industries such as media. If anything, it increases the pressure that ultimately leads some people towards the path of giving up in favour of settling with a career that’s easier to attain.
On average, I’d estimate that every media course in the UK has between 20-40 students enrolled per year group, if not more. An article from The Independent in 2011 states that there are over 1600 different media courses available in the UK. Given that this was some time ago, and working on the basis that there are two to three year groups for every course, then there are around 50,000 students looking for media related work experience opportunities at any one point in time. That’s a lot!
Small companies like Southpoint Films are unfortunately not in a position to help these students. At the time of writing we are only a team of three and our resources are limited. If we invite a student to shadow us for a week, there’s a strong chance that we won’t be able to provide an experience of any value. Our work is too high pressure, with very fast turnarounds, for us to let an inexperienced person sit in the driver’s seat on a real project, and we don’t have the staff or equipment spare to run any specially designed activities for the work experience placement. We could assign the stereotypical work experience tasks like making coffee and tea, but you could get that sort of experience by taking a placement at a local coffee shop. What’s the point? When I was at school I was very lucky to get a week of work experience at a local radio station, and while I’m not complaining about the fact I had this opportunity, I spent the whole week alphabetising CDs on my own…
Unless you’re close to a media hub such as London or Manchester, many other ‘local’ video production companies are in a similar position to ours; they’re small teams (often one-man bands) without the resources to offer work experience. This leaves it up to the big broadcasters like the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky, plus the big production houses, to provide work experience schemes, which they do, but they simply can’t cater for the sheer number of people looking for opportunities – that’s not to say that it’s impossible to get experience from the bigger companies, but it’s not an option for everyone. So, practically, what can you do without giving up on your dreams?
When I speak to university students about these issues, my advice is always to go out there and create your own work experiences. This may seem like a cop-out, but it’s certainly not. When I was a student at university I spent almost all of my free time running, and producing content for, the university’s student television station. Through this vehicle I was able to produce videos for “clients”, such as the student’s union, the university itself, and other student societies. While there was no money involved in this process, I was engaging in a very real client relationship that was, in almost all ways, no different from the relationships I have with clients now. The only difference is that now, of course, I ask for some money at the end of the project! If I hadn’t gotten this experience on my own accord I would never have had the skills to set up my own business, and Southpoint Films would not exist today.
Now before I move on, there is one important caveat to my advice, which is that it’s important not to do work for free that somebody would otherwise have to pay for. For example, if a company is obtaining quotes for having a corporate film produced and you offer to do it for free on the basis of getting the experience, you’re indirectly hurting your chances of building a career in the future. In this situation you’re accidentally undercutting the established companies that, in the future, could be giving you a job and a stable income – which they can’t do if they don’t have any money coming in!
There is already a big challenge in the market regarding what value is placed on creative services like video production and students offering to do paid work for free (or for £50 and a packet of crisps) is a huge problem for keeping the industry sustainable. So the second part (and perhaps most important part) of my advice is to make sure that you offer your services to people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it; charities, community groups, local sport clubs, art projects, etc. You will find that most volunteer organisations will happily accept the help because they wouldn’t be able to get it any other way, plus they’re more likely to have the time and the resources to support you as they’re often more experienced with having temporary volunteers in their organisation. (Groups that work with vulnerable people will usually have valid DBS certificates, insurances, and so on for working with minors, so it provides an option for people under 18 too.)
All of the above is designed to build your skills. Equally, if you’re not interested in corporate/factual video production and are more interested in making dramatic productions, there’s nothing stopping you from going out with a few friends (or finding volunteer actors online) and creating short films in your free time outside of what you may be doing within your educational requirements. When I was in school I used to spend my evenings making stop motion animations with a cheap webcam. Although I look back on them and cringe a little, they taught me a lot about making films. I learnt about camera angles, editing techniques, and about telling a story. I made over fifty 2-3 minute films in three years. Once I could afford a video camcorder (this was back in the days when not every digital camera had a video mode – and before smartphones) I also created a bunch of live-action films with my friends from school, and continued to do this until I was making “proper” short films at university. It all helps to build and refine the skills that you will need to get a job in video production.
But what about work ethic? If you choose to make videos for a ‘client’ of some description, you will start to develop this. You will need to be punctual, prepared and organised when out filming, and you may be given deadlines that you need to work to – but equally you may not get much experience of a ‘real world’ production if the client isn’t all that invested in your freebie project.
The easiest way to develop a work ethic is to get a job. I know – easier said that done – but the important thing is that it doesn’t have to be a job in media. It can be a job in a supermarket, fast food restaurant, or coffee shop. Even a paper round will suffice! My first job was in a children’s play area, which at one point involved cleaning poo out of the ball pool for a grand sum of £3.57 an hour. It was not an exciting or dignifying job, but it was a job – and it helped me buy a car and some video equipment before university. If I was unreliable, didn’t arrive for my shifts on time, didn’t do as I was asked by my superiors, and didn’t put the effort into the tasks I’d been assigned, I would have gotten in trouble and/or fired. After eight months of working weekends there, with extra shifts during school holidays, I left that job with an entry on my CV and a glowing reference which helped me get my next job working for Apple retail before ultimately starting my own business.
Although I will acknowledge that this advice is based purely on my personal experience and what we look for at Southpoint Films, I hope that there are parts of this post that will help you make the most of the time you have left before you need to get out there and start making your way into the ‘real world’. Getting a job and starting a career in media is not easy, but if you’re focussed and work hard towards your goal it’s definitely possible to succeed. Good luck!