Written by Lee Baldock
Published in Lighting & Sound International Magazine - April 2015
UK - The recent announcement by the PSA that it was working with event production industry employers to develop a structure for a Live Event Technician apprenticeship will have been a welcome one for many concerned with skills shortages. The difficulty of finding good candidates with the right aptitude for event production work will be familiar to most companies serving the sector.
Those researching the UK's apprenticeship structure have found that it does not currently allow for the formal training of event technicians. While the 'Live events and promotion' apprenticeship includes a 'stage and venue crew' element, it is just one of many Events-related modules, sitting alongside promotions, planning, marketing, venue booking and other roles. Some have found workarounds with existing electricians' apprenticeships, but again it's not a direct fit for live event production. As a result, a number of employers have introduced their own schemes to encourage the next generation.
One such is Pearce Hire, a well-established provider of lighting, audio and power for events. Located in Peterborough - a town currently without much of a live music and events infrastructure to provide a local skills resource - Pearce Hire perhaps feels the skills shortage more sharply than others. Company founder Shaun Pearce recalls: "I started out by going down to the local venues and offering to help the likes of Skan PA and Brit Row unload their trucks. That opportunity's not there anymore."
To address this, Pearce approached a contact at the local Peterborough Regional College (PRC) to discuss internships. Pearce says: "I thought it could work both ways, for us and for the youngsters ... in the long term we could build and develop a skilled local team that we could call on."
His contact at the college was Greg Sieling, course leader for PRC's two-year Music Technology BTEC course. He loved the idea, and once both sides were happy with the arrangements, Pearce Hire welcomed its first two interns in summer 2013. PRC has since added its two-year Production Arts BTEC students to the selection pool, and the current interns - Jake Merrill and Jacob Gowler - are students from that course.
Sieling says "The BTEC is a full-time qualification, but we assign certain hours for work experience. We're looking for opportunities to work with employers to gain experience in relevant areas, so working with Pearce Hire is great. And as you've seen, the warehouse is immaculate - it's a tight ship - so that ticked the right boxes for us, particularly as we're sending under-18s there. We have to be sure they're in a safe environment."
Pearce Hire's Jim Brown worked with Sieling to formulate a training 'logbook' for each student, to serve both as a contribution to their BTEC coursework, and as a proof of experience for future employers. Students attend Pearce Hire for one day each week over an eight-week period, and are supervised in warehouse safety, vehicle loading/unloading, cleaning/prepping/de-prepping of audio, lighting and power equipment, fault-finding and maintenance, basic sound and lighting set-ups, lamp replacement and disposal, basic soldering skills, cable testing, PAT testing and - at every turn - the habits of good housekeeping, so vital to a well-run warehouse. Depending on the company's event schedule, there will usually be on-site experience too.
The focus is on a wider skill-set than academic achievements, says Brown: "We make it a policy not to ask about their education background - they may have had a bad school experience, or they may be straightA students. We like to find out what they're good at, and develop that. It's good for their confidence."
In describing the qualities they are looking for, Brown says: "The ones who, when you give them a task, they do it, then come back and say 'what's next?' - they're the ones I'd give a job to in a heartbeat. Assuming everyone's competent - and all those we've had to date have been - the rest is all about attitude."
Pearce adds: "Another advantage is that we get them at the right stage to teach them how we like things to be done. We're very particular about how we do things and how we present ourselves; it's good to be able to show them, 'this is the right way to do it'."
And for Sieling, Pearce Hire's real-world training serves to reinforce and validate the methods and practices taught at the college. He says: "It's great when the students come back and say to lhe others, 'yes, that is how you coil a cable'. It confirms what we're teaching them. The way Pearce Hire likes to work is the way we like to work; it's important when you're teaching those core values - what people believe is the right way to do something. That's the hardest thing to change about learning."
Pearce says: "Greg comes from a music industry background and he's still involved - he still engineers, he still plays with bands - so he has that extra understanding of the real world." That link with production continues with PRC's recent appointment of tour manager Steve McGuire as a Music Tech course lecturer. It's also worth adding that under this experienced tutelage the students are also able to gain excellent hands-on production experience at the college itself, staging gigs and shows on a regular basis.
For Pearce Hire, running a scheme like this depends on its staff accepting the extra layer of responsibility that having a young intern placed under your wing demands. Was it easy to get everyone to buy into that process? "I haven't heard a single negative comment," says Brown, "and I think it actually helps our people to develop themselves too, because it's not something they've necessarily done before." The results, too, encourage participation, says Pearce. "Even if it does make things slightly harder initially, when we're flat-out and we need people, they can see those kids coming back to work with us and getting on with it - the time they've spent has had a huge payback."
Of Pearce Hire's eight complete internships to date, one is now employed permanently and most of the others will continue their learning as paid casual crew. "I'd have any of them back," says Brown. It's a successful hit-rate that is testament to both Sieling's wise selection and Pearce Hire's company culture.
Pearce says: "Dave Richardson, who now works for us full-time, came to us in the first intake. So we've been able to offer not only a work placement, but a job opportunity that probably would never have happened without the internship. It's a great two-way street. I would strongly encourage other employers to do it if they can."
I ask, what is the most important lesson they teach the interns? Brown says: "I think the lesson that applies generally is that they are not entitled - to anything. If you put in hard graft, you'll get the reward. And if that's what they go away with - even if they don't like the live events industry and they never want to work in it again - then that's a good lesson."
There are good lessons all round. And, as the possibility of tailored apprenticeship models progresses, both PRC and Pearce Hire will be keen to develop the next generation of skilled technicians even further.