Talent in your hands

28th May 2004 at 01:00
Lord Puttnam backs pound;1m training fund for film industry freelancers to improve their skills. James Sturcke reports

When David Puttnam was still a young pup in the postroom of a London advertising agency, he unwittingly managed to get his boss an almighty bollocking.

"Someone decided that in the messenger department there were some reasonably bright kids who were worth training," he says.

"So they allowed me to do different jobs within the agency and find a niche for myself that wasn't previously well defined.

"In those days in the ad world you were either a creative-type or a suit.

Now I'd like to think - and you'll have to be careful how you put this because I don't want to sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet in a ridiculous way - what I discovered was I was a relatively creative suit.

"They let me be that. They let me work in the interface between creativity and the suit jobs. At the time that was enormously good faith. I remember my boss being very heavily criticised for damaging the structures of the way things worked. But it changed my life."

Four decades later, a string of producer successes behind him including Best Picture Oscar for Chariots of Fire, and a now ennobled Lord Puttnam is once again trying to change the way things are done.

As patron of Skillset, the sector skills council for the UK audio-visual industries, Lord Puttnam wants to develop a training and retraining culture among the country's TV companies and programme-makers.

In a recent Skillset survey, nine out of 10 workers in the industry, in which the majority work freelance, said they had come up against barriers to training including high fees, loss of earnings and fear of losing work.

Last week, Lord Puttnam announced the launch of a National Skills Day, the first of which will take place next May, giving the industry a dedicated day to focus on training needs and promote skills' development.

Lord Puttnam, whose full diary means he talks to FE Focus from the back of a London cab, says: "They used to say about ad agencies that you shouldn't invest in them because their talent went up and down. The same is true for the TV industry. You are only as good as the people working for you.

"There have been breathtaking changes in technology in the industry over the past 10 years. The average technician today will probably have to retrain at least twice during their career.

"Broadcasting is uniquely vulnerable to the ramifications of an inadequately trained workforce. We are trying to develop a training culture where people don't see training as a cost but as an investment, and that is a major shift. It is about getting that message across to an industry which has frankly been complacent about training."

The high use of freelancers goes some way to explaining the poor training culture. TV companies have shied away from training people who could be working for rival firms in six months. Freelancers themselves have failed to recognise the benefit of investing their own time and money on training.

There are signs that things may be changing. Channel 4 announced on May 19 that it would take on its first two new-style apprentices this summer - "modern" having been dropped by the Government from the Modern Apprenticeship label - to learn business and administration in media.

Alec McPhedran, a Channel 4 training and development manager, says: "What struck me talking to colleagues was that getting good administrators who understand the issues of the TV industry is hard.

"If the pilot scheme works this year our target will be to take on six to eight next year. We are looking for people who would not normally get a break in the TV industry, possibly from a disadvantaged background.

"There are something like 140,000 people in the industry and a high proportion of them are freelance or on short-term contracts. We have to recognise that people do move from one company to another and that should not stop us training them."

Channel 4, along with the BBC, ITV and Five, contribute to Skillset's freelance training fund, and have created a pound;1million-a-year initiative to which freelancers can apply to have up to 60 per cent of their training costs paid for.

Lord Puttnam recently met James Murdoch, chief executive of BSkyB, in an attempt to entice the satellite broadcaster to come on board. A spokesman for the firm confirmed Sky was committed to next year's National Skills Day and details would be announced in due course.

But Skillset's patron is clear, employees and freelancers must be more pro-active in seeking their own training. "You have an organisation which can actually supply you with all the information," he says.

"If you happen to be in Hartlepool and you are a vision mixer and you are thinking about your future, through Skillset you can get hold of information about what your regional development agency can do for you, what the opportunities in your region are, what the plans in your region are. It is far more structured than it used to be.

"If you go back only 15 years, it depended on who you knew and luck that propelled you forward. In my case it was 99 per cent luck.

"Today you cannot afford to rely on luck. The old 'who you know' doesn't quite work any longer and so you have an absolute obligation to yourself to make sure you are irresistibly highly trained and highly motivated."

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