Careers: Caught on camera

Television continues to be a hugely popular career choice, yet the competition for jobs is fiercer than ever. One way in is unpaid work experience but, as Meg Carter finds, this often means exploitation
Given the growing popularity of media courses and the showbiz appeal of a career in television, the few remaining TV industry graduate trainee programmes are vastly oversubscribed. Small wonder, then, if an increasing number of young hopefuls are offering to work unpaid in the hope of getting a foot in the door. Many are still waiting.

There is little doubt work experience in a relevant field can strengthen your cv. And it can give you a chance to make contacts and get to hear of full-time job openings before they appear in the press. However, with TV production budgets under increased pressure and a steady flow of hopefuls offering to work for programme-makers for free, there are growing fears about exploitation.

Typical examples of this include a lack of structure or planning to the work placement's work, no training, no feedback and - at worst - doing the same work as a full-time, staff employee but for no pay. Much depends on your luck in choosing the right (or wrong) broadcaster or production company to work with. At best, you could find yourself assisting a producer developing programme proposals or helping out on shoots. At worst, expect to do little more than make endless cups of coffee and answer the phone.

The situation is described by one ex-work experiencer now in full-time employment as "little more than a lottery". "Apply for work and you're told `Get some relevant experience.' Try to do just that and you stand to waste months on a promise of nothing."

In an attempt to improve the situation and raise the standards and reputation of those working (and recruiting) in television, independent programme producers association PACT has drawn up a voluntary code of practice on training and work experience for its 1,000 members. Early next month, the association will start approaching broadcasters to encourage them to sign up to the code of practice as well.

Back in the good old days, both the BBC and ITV ran regular graduate entry schemes and offered full-time staff proper training, annual salaries (plus benefits) and a clear career development path. However, times have changed. The growth of the independent production sector has coincided with budget cuts across most major television companies. The result has been a mass-casualisation of the labour force.

"As permanent employment structures break down and tough downward cost pressures steadily grow, programme-makers are increasingly asked to make programmes in ways they wouldn't have done 10 years ago," observes PACT chief executive John Woodward. Many programmes today are under-financed and under-resourced. "For the production company there is an increased temptation to cut corners. You can't cut props, mikes or days in studio. But you can cut labour."

As a result, a growing number of companies now use unpaid work experiencers to plug the gaps. The trouble is that for many of these, the chance of full-time, salaried work remains as distant as ever. In smaller companies, opportunities will arise only when they are busy, which means the chance of a permanent job is slim. Larger companies may appear to be better positioned to offer paid employment, but only a handful operate any kind of planned entry scheme.

Without doubt, exposure to the industry for a short period can prove immensely valuable. However, PACT is concerned many are being treated unfairly. "There is a clear dividing line between work experience and training on the one hand and exploitation on the other," Woodward believes. "The question is, when you are taking on someone fresh from school, what can they really contribute?"

The PACT code has five basic principles. It is underpinned by a belief in the unfairness of hiring staff without appropriate pay. A training post/work experience placement should never be a substitute for experienced staff, it goes on to say. Unpaid placements should last no more than four weeks - after then, they should become a paid training post. And, it adds, companies using placements should accept a responsibility for providing considered training and assessment and that trainee selection should follow standard equal opportunity guidelines.

"Very positive and very much needed", is Planet 24 personnel director Mary Durkan's response to the PACT initiative although, she insists, her company is already working well within the guidelines. Planet 24, which produces Channel 4's Big Breakfast, is one of the few production companies with sufficiently large and long enough contracts to run not only a rolling placement scheme but also operate a graduate recruitment programme.

Four people are taken on each month for four weeks of unpaid work experience. "It's strictly run to avoid any abuse. We don't keep them any longer because we don't think it's fair," Durkan says. Although further paid work cannot be promised, around 30 per cent a year do get jobs with the company. Even so, these are unlikely to be much longer than six-month contracts, she adds. "The way the business is going, that's about as permanent as anyone will get."

Planet 24's approach, however, is far from typical. Many operate unstructured intakes simply to plug gaps, while some eschew the idea of work experience altogether. "To be run properly takes time - which is at a premium," one training officer confides. "Besides, I find many graduates have a very inflated opinion of themselves: they're just not prepared to learn to walk before they can run"