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With digital technologies developing at pace, freelancers need to develop their skills throughout their careers. Rob Lindsay outlines the support The Space provides to freelancers across the sector.

Three people shown training on computer screens
Freelancers need ongoing support and training to thrive

Hayley Slater

The creative industries are a major contributor to the UK economy bringing in £109bn of gross value in 2021 (House of Lords report, June 2023). Nearly a third of roles in the sector are done by freelancers - more than double the number of self-employed workers in the wider economy. With direct experience of working freelance in the creative industries, I understand the many challenges currently faced by the freelance workforce. 

The cultural sector relies heavily on this freelance workforce for digital skills in particular, but it does not always consider how it might support them throughout their careers. In small companies, digital activities are often handled by freelancers. 

The Space has an Associate Network made up of 90 freelancers with a range of digital skills. We are beginning to systematise our approach to supporting them with opportunities in skill sharing, training and development, and networking. Employed staff often benefit from such training and development paid for by their employers. Freelancers are not usually extended that luxury and don’t have that investment. 

Our associates work across various projects and talk to us about the skills the sector is asking for help with. We can then support them to respond to queries about a range of  topics including emerging technologies, digital rights, accessibility, the implications of AI and strategic planning. 

We are hoping to introduce training bursaries to equip our associates with the relevant skills and to host online networking sessions for sharing knowledge and experiences. To address some of these challenges and work on finding solutions together, we recently hosted Digital Culture Talks 23 where freelancers discussed their experiences. These were some of the takeaways from that online conference. 

Takeaways: Finding time

One panellist, Holly Close - a Space Associate - suggested that both freelancers and organisations could benefit from exit interviews: “When a project ends, you send an invoice and that's it. There is no real discussion about how things went or how you or the organisation could improve. With an exit interview, we could share what we’ve learned and the freelancer could feel valued and part of the conversation.” 

The nature of emerging technologies means, for digital freelancers, protected time allows them to upskill and adapt. Holly explained: “Freelancers have to become a bit of a Swiss army knife. For example, I understand how to put things on YouTube so maybe I can figure out how to use YouTube ads and learn more about that. You upskill yourself and try to find resources. The Space programmes are great at helping to upskill people but it's about finding time.”

Another panellist Robyn Winfield-Smith, Director of Liminal Stage and a Clore Fellow, agreed that freelancers and organisations would benefit from a more collaborative process at the beginning and end of projects - a kind of runway for freelancers. “If we’re looking to support people in the industry, there's something around finding ways to protect the time for both good planning and then evaluation to happen.”

Takeaways: Integrating freelancers

In 2017, the Creative Industries Federation (recently merged with Creative England to form Creative UK) published a report that surveyed 700 creative freelancers and the organisations that employ them. It concluded that the self-employed in the sector “felt invisible to policymakers” and this concern has increased since that pre-pandemic time. 

Robyn Winfield-Smith told the conference: “If freelancers were integrated into the running of organisations and if those organisations invested in those individuals, that would be a huge change.” Robyn also acknowledged ways The Space and others are attempting to meet some of the challenges: “It’s fantastic that there are organisations seeking to provide training and skills for freelancers and - in a range of ways - breadth is important because there are so many different needs.”

Holly also spoke of the benefits of mentoring programmes: “What we often find is that there may not be a skills gap but a confidence gap. People working within digital infrastructures which were built for huge corporate organisations, but if you’re just one person working on all the marketing for a small theatre or arts company, it can be overwhelming. Mentoring is incredibly helpful for boosting people’s confidence and encouraging them to have a go.”

Takeaways: Time to reflect

The Space encourages organisations to build in time for reflection and permission for things not to turn out in the way we anticipated. A project might have significantly different outputs or audience responses from what we expected. A discussion with the freelancers who worked on the project could be incredibly useful.

Across the sector, a disproportionately high number of digital freelancers are from diverse or under-represented backgrounds. It is vital we retain these skilled people and provide an adequate route to progression, otherwise we risk losing them to other sectors. 

For a sector so reliant on freelancers for its digital skills, why does it feel so vulnerable for the self-employed to approach even a long-term client for training support? For these reasons, we are committed to developing the skills of freelancers across the sector. 
Freelancers need the support and training opportunities necessary to thrive in the ever-changing digital realm.

Rob Lindsay is Head of Programmes at The Space.

This article, sponsored and contributed by The Space, is part of a series spotlighting new ways of creating and distributing digital content, and exploring the wealth of new technologies and platforms coming online.

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Thanks for writing this Rob! I have to invest time in upskilling constantly and being ahead of the game. Also, I have had a few clients lately who just don't engage after the contract has ended - what Holly says is spot on. I invest heavily in my work and put huge amounts of passion and energy into the work I do, just dropping off their books can be disheartening! I do my best from my side, and I do understand how at capacity organisations are. I hope this activates people to see the freelancer's role from the freelancer's perspective.