As the tide turns against unpaid internships, other solutions are needed to help graduates gain vital work experience. Kate Danielson explains why paid work placements could be part of the solution

Oliver Sykes on placement at Contact Manchester © PHOTO JOEL CHester Fildes

In early 2010, the Jerwood Foundation undertook to establish and run a new scheme to create paid work placements for recent graduates. Funded by DCMS and Arts Council England (ACE), it was the brainchild of Margaret Hodge, then Minister for Culture, whose vision was to create an alternative route into the arts. With unpaid internships being the dominant entry point to jobs in the arts, those without the financial backing to work for free were being excluded from entering the job market.

The evaluation of the scheme, which followed the conclusion of the pilot in March this year, provides some valuable evidence of the impact of the placements on both the graduates and the host organisations. A note here about terminology: in creating this scheme, we used the term ‘placements’ to describe these opportunities as they were paid roles lasting for up to 12 months and carried real responsibilities within the host organisation. By contrast, internships* are short-term (two weeks to six months) and include paid models, and in a few cases (for example, when the intern is still in education) unpaid models.

Over the two-year period, 42 new work placements were created with individual arts organisations across England. The graduates on this scheme were recruited by the hosts according to a set of financial and academic eligibility criteria, but there are broader lessons to be learnt about the value of graduate work placements for employers across the sector.

We discovered that the benefits of the scheme went both ways and were more evenly distributed between hosts and graduates than anticipated. It was a life-changing experience for many of the bursary recipients, 90% (38 out of 42) of whom are currently employed in the arts following their placements. But employers too reported huge and often unexpected benefits of hosting a placement and for roughly half of them (21 out of 42) this was their first experience of working with entry level recruits.

  • Hosts identified an energy and can-do attitude in their recipients which had a very positive impact on their organisations. They also identified the fresh ideas and perspective recipients brought and their willingness to challenge accepted thinking within the organisation.
  • Hosts were surprised at the speed with which their new recruits were able to take on full responsibility for their tasks.
  • Hosts appreciated the different skill sets their recipients brought and particularly their easy communication with different audiences and a familiarity with new media.
  • A placement is a great way of trying out a new role within the organisation for a set period of time. 95% of the placements were new roles and 10 out of the 42 are now permanent new positions.
  • A number of hosts appreciated having the opportunity to have an impact on recruits they feel will be future cultural leaders. This particularly applied to an employer such as Punchdrunk who create a very specific brand of theatre, requiring extended periods of training.

The keys to success also became clear as the scheme progressed. For recruitment, creating links with local universities and those with appropriate courses worked well for the hosts: sending recruitment information to careers services and heads of arts faculties led to a high quality pool of applicants for the placements. A proper induction period and a very clear job description also reaped rewards for hosts, and, as the placement continued, keeping recruits challenged created the best results.

Hosting paid placements is an important way for employers to ensure they are playing their part in creating a truly vibrant workforce. Unpaid placements are a barrier to social mobility and Alan Milburn, in his recent update on his original 2009 review, reports that little has been done in the past three years to help students from less affluent backgrounds to get their foot in the door. Alan Davey also drew attention recently to this issue: “The lack of fair entry routes to the creative and cultural sector has the potential to derail the progress of the industries, limiting both the talent that sustains them and their potential for growth.”

There are a few schemes that exist currently to support employers in offering placements. Trainee programmes for both graduates and non-graduates are funded via the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future and the Royal Opera House has run several schemes recently to support young unemployed people into jobs in the arts with a range of London partner organisations. And, dependent on finding the right partners and funding, we aim to continue our graduate scheme in the future to create more opportunities – it’s a route that offers benefits to all.

The evaluation report of the Creative Bursaries Scheme is at
*As defined in ‘Internship in the Arts’, guidelines published by ACE and Creative and Cultural Skills in November 2011  

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