Apprenticeships - A doorway to diversity

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By Melissa Gillespie

Before my apprenticeship began I'd been working part-time in cafes, first in London and then back home in Newcastle, after an unsuccessful attempt at the conventional route into the creative career I wanted: university.

It was due to personal problems that I returned home to Newcastle, completely disheartened and feeling as though I'd never be able to work in the arts – the industry I'd wanted to be part of since primary school.

This is what can happen when organisations open their doors and give people who haven’t been able to go the conventional route the same opportunities as those that have.

The only jobs that came up during my year-long search while I was waitressing in an art gallery café, either required a degree, were unpaid internships, or were apprenticeships that paid £3.50 an hour. Sometimes the ads didn't even ask for the degree to be in a related subject; they simply said ‘educated to degree level’. In any case, the doors were shut in my face at every turn, or at least that's how it felt.

I couldn’t afford to go back to university to finish my degree, and I couldn’t afford to apply for any of the internships or apprenticeships that paid less than the adult minimum wage. I had rent and bills to pay. So when the Creative Apprenticeship at Culture Bridge North East appeared in my search, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get the experience I needed in the arts and culture sector, and gain some qualifications at the same time.

The job was full-time and paid national minimum wage according to age, which meant I could actually afford to take it on. Now, a couple of months into my second year at Culture Bridge North East and my Level 3 qualification in Community Arts Management, I have no doubt it’s the best thing I could have done, and I’m grateful to Culture Bridge North East for giving me the opportunity. But I’m also very aware of how lucky I am to be here: this was the only apprenticeship or internship I'd come across in over a year of job hunting that was paying the adult minimum wage, and if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have been offered the position, I'd still barely be managing as a part-time waitress, and the arts and culture sector would still be a closed door

Surprise, surprise

In October 2017, I received a letter from Gateshead College telling me I'd been selected as Creative Industries Apprentice of the Year at its annual Edge Apprentice Awards. At the celebration evening, I was struck by how far I had come since taking on my apprenticeship with Culture Bridge North East in 2016, and how lucky I am to be in the position that I'm in. These feelings had already been stoked by the Case for Culture Stakeholder Forum event I'd attended two weeks before the awards at the Discovery Museum, where the discussions I'd taken part in returned often to apprenticeships during conversations about progression, development, and access to talent across the culture sector.

Access to the arts is a huge barrier for so many people whose dream it is to work in the creative industries, such as BAME people, the LGBT+ community, disabled people, and those who don’t have a degree or can’t afford to go to university. This was discussed with some passion at the forum, and it was fascinating to hear employers talk about what they could do to improve the diversity of their workforce, and access to the arts and culture sector as a whole. One individual said their organisation had recently done away with asking candidates to have a degree, instead asking for a Level 3 qualification. There was some debate as to whether that would be enough, and I don’t believe it is.

There is of course more to this issue than doing away with the degree requirement in the ‘Essential’ section of the job specification. But it is a start, and one that I’m thankful for.

When doors open, great things happen

2017 was a big year for me. Over the course of those 12 months I went from dreading the day that I'd inevitably find out I wasn’t good enough to work in the culture sector to organising the North East’s first Artsmark celebration event, organising Culture Bridge North East’s second annual cultural education conference, Imagine If..., showing artwork as part of a major exhibition at Newcastle City Library, becoming an experienced Arts Award adviser and being selected as Gateshead College’s Creative Industries Apprentice of the Year!

This is what can happen when organisations open their doors and give people who haven’t been able to go the conventional route the same opportunities as those that have: they can develop into dedicated, passionate, confident, ambitious professionals.

My apprenticeship ends this coming October, and while I’m naturally anxious about the future and whether I'll be able to find a job in the arts and culture sector, for the first time in years I’m also hopeful - hopeful that due to my experience and accomplishments, it will be enough.