Kate Beal: the work experience experience

Kate-Beal-Chief-Executive-Officer-&-Joint-Creative-Director,-Woodcut-Media-(2)Work Experience – it’s that rite of passage into the mystical world of TV. We all took part in it as eager young wannabees hoping to make an impression by making the perfect cup of tea for the right person. For me it was a very positive experience and I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. However, work experience doesn’t always have to lead to a job to ensure the success of the placement. Sometimes a real-world experience is exactly what the young television enthusiast needs.

A few weeks ago I went out filming. It was a fairly standard filming day – hard work and long hours! I found our work experience candidate slumped in the corner almost in tears. I asked her if she was ok and she said ‘I’m so tired’. The reality of television had hit – a far cry from her safe university environment.

Each year we have around 30 work experience placements. Some are valuable for both us and the candidate. Some are more challenging. Last year I spoke on a panel for [UK skills agency] Creative Skillset about good practice in work experience. This made me assess our own scheme to see how we can achieve the best possible outcomes. Here are a few things we’ve learned to make work experience valuable for both the employer and the individual.

Before any candidate is given a work experience placement with us they must first send a CV and covering note. If this is good enough they are then asked in for a formal interview. This part of the process is vital for both the employer and the candidate. Firstly it gives a genuine professional experience but most importantly it manages the expectations of the candidate from the outset.

For any placement to be a success the candidate must know what is expected of them, what they will do on a daily basis and how they can achieve this. Often people who come in for work experience have never had a job before so not only are we teaching about television production, we are also teaching them about the world of work.

The key to a good work experience placement is to give them a real world taste of television production – even if it’s the boring bits! In an ideal scenario they should not just be observing and making the odd cup of tea. It may sound strange but we always aim to get them to make a phone call while with us. An easy task on paper but in reality the concept of making a phone call for business purposes in a crowded room of TV people is a daunting task – especially for the text/email generation. Logging, basic research and general runner duties all give a real sense of the production process.

However, it’s a difficult balance to achieve between giving them something worthwhile to do and making them a vital member of the production team who should actually be employed. With increasingly tight budgets it can be very tempting to have your candidate as an unofficial team member to ease the load.

Always keep an eye on the activities of the candidate – even the good ones. Recently we had a bright young researcher in the making who was keen to prove himself. We were looking for an astrologer to be interviewed for one of our shows. The brief was someone local, not famous and who only required a small fee for their time. Within the hour he’d almost booked possibly the most famous astrologer in the UK plus a car to transport him to location. Good initiative but an expensive mistake if we hadn’t double-checked all of his work.

From a practical perspective having a work experience candidate does create extra cost. We have dedicated desks and laptops for work experience use and we always offer to pay reasonable travel expenses. In addition to this, there is the time cost of members of staff giving support and advice. Mentoring is a must and the work experience candidate should always have someone they can approach to ask questions of.

Another firm rule we keep to is the length of time candidates spends with us. We only offer placements of one-to-two weeks, which in my opinion is a good length of time that people can reasonably be expected to work unpaid. Longer work experience placements end up excluding candidates whose families cannot support them. In order to help create the diverse workforce we all desire, we need to give equal opportunity from the outset.

Obviously there have been candidates who just didn’t quite work out. This isn’t surprising as the majority of them are students living a student lifestyle. Although television is one of the few industries where it’s OK to spend a significant part of your day on Facebook, it doesn’t tend to go down too well with me. Arriving late in the office with an obvious hangover isn’t a great start either. It may be acceptable for a TV exec at Edinburgh or MIP, but not when you’re starting out.

As an employer if you have two work experience candidates on placement at the same time, make sure they are from different universities and don’t know each other. If they turn up with their friends they automatically have a safety blanket. The point of work experience is to give the reality of walking into an unfamiliar environment and making a success of it. It’s hard to do that if you’re gossiping with your best mate all day.

Ultimately, the clear benefit of work experience is the building of a network of contacts and the possibility of future employment. When a candidate is on a placement, they need to make the most of it – network, network, network. So when it comes to applying for the paid roles they are ahead of the field with a good set of contacts. From an employers perspective it gives us the chance to cherry pick the best from the next generation of television talent. As an industry based around creativity it is essential that we discover and nurture the television professionals of the future and work experience is the place to start.

Kate Beal runs Woodcut TV, a UK-based indie factual producer

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