Broadcast Engineering: Bridging The Skills Gap

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With a generation of broadcast engineers approaching retirement age, how can you benefit from this impending skills-gap?

From Civvy Street #45 (March 2014), Words: Paul F. Cockburn

August 2012 was a golden summer for the BBC, with near-universal praise for the breadth, depth and quality of its television, radio and online coverage of the London 2012 Olympic Games. At the time, however, the Corporation’s then chief technology officer, John Linwood (subsequently sacked following the shutdown of the troubled Digital Media Initiative) noticed something worrying.

Many of the Corporation’s broadcast engineers were in their fifties. “We have an ageing workforce of very skilled people and we’re starting to get to the point where a number of them are going to start retiring in the next few years,” he pointed out the following April. Or, to put it another way, unless the BBC quickly began to address the issue, the next decade would see it struggle to deliver anything as technically complex as the London Olympics.

The previous year, the Executive Director of the Society of Broadcast Engineers (SBE), John L Poray reported that, in 2001 just under half (49%) of their members were between the age of 45 and 65. One decade later (2011) and that proportion had risen to nearly two thirds (65%), with a doubling (from 16% to 33%) of those aged 55 and above. “The perception of many in the industry is that the average age of technical staff at broadcast stations has been on the rise for years,” he said. “Using SBE membership statistics as a barometer of the industry, this perception is valid.”

QUALIFIED?

While clearly problematic for broadcasters, this impending skills gap is good news if you’re looking to enter the industry, especially with appropriate engineering skills and experience arising from your Armed Forces career. For example, if you’re coming from the Royal Corps of Signals, or have in-depth experience of the telecoms/data/broadcast system, then you’ll either already have the kind of knowledge (including Broadcast IT and Broadcast Networks) and qualifications that existing employers are looking for – or at least display a clear ability to develop those skills.

Your Military experience will also play well when it comes to applying for current roles with employers (the biggest of which are still the UK’s main terrestrial and digital television channels, e.g. the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, and S4C in Wales). Invariably, they’re looking for resilient team-players who are calm under pressure; people who have excellent problem-solving and analytical skills, and can display a positive attitude to getting the job done, no matter what. Remind you of anyone?

Of course, those qualities apply equally to those coming from other disciplines within the Armed Forces; so what if you’re looking to make a fresh start as a broadcast engineer in civilian life?  Like many engineering specialisms, most people start in the broadcasting sector learning on the job, eventually progressing through structured training programmes leading possibly to chartered engineer (CEng) status, assuming the requirements of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) are met.

GETTING STARTED

Linwood’s response to the foreseeable skills shortage coming down the line towards the Corporation was, in April 2013, to launch a new BBC technology apprenticeship scheme, devised by the BBC Academy in partnership with Creative Skillset, the industry body supporting skills and training within the UK’s creative industries. The BBC admitted from the start that it was mainly looking for school leavers on this scheme, but there’s no official age ceiling, and it seems that a passion for working in the broadcast industry (rather than just using it as a stepping stone to another job, later on) is a significant qualifier.

However, given that this new programme aims to train just 100 apprentices during an eight year period (with participants earning an externally-provided university degree, and a possible job in the BBC after their three years) this could be thought of as little more than a sticking a plaster on a gaping wound, not least because there are at least 2,000 engineers working in the broadcasting sector in the UK just now. Other career routes may serve you better.

Advice and information on entry routes into broadcast engineering are available from several sources, including Creative Skillset and the IABM Training Academy. The latter, an offshoot of the International Association of Broadcasting Manufacturers (IABM), was launched in 2011 to address the growing skills shortage in the sector through creating and promoting a range of courses–covering not just technical skills, “but also offering administrative, managerial and executive staff training on the role that technology plays in the broadcasting industry”.

CAREER PROSPECTS

The likes of the BBC are, obviously enough, looking for a long-term commitment from those now entering the sector, but after gaining experience, broadcast engineers are likely to specialise in particular types of technology (including software) or rise to supervisory or management roles.  Alternatively, some broadcast engineers with a sufficiently strong reputation and a contacts book bursting at the seams with the right telephone numbers, work as freelancers, moving from one fixed-term project or short contract to the next.

Although broadcasting networks and systems cover the length and breadth of the UK and beyond, meaning a degree of choice in where you settle, it’s fair to say that many of the UK’s production and post-production facilities and studios are based in or around London. Outside of the UK capital, the largest media concentration is in Salford, Greater Manchester, with significantly smaller ‘media villages’ in Cardiff and Glasgow.

Significant changes in the industry during the last thirty-odd years (not least the ‘economies of scale’ in larger broadcasting groups which have cut back on engineering staff) ensure that the limited number of opportunities keep the sector competitive. You will need to keep up to date with developments in technology, and will be expected to undertake additional training as part of your professional development.

MORE:

BBC ACADEMY – 0370 010 0264, www.bbcacademy.com

CREATIVE SKILLSET – 020 7713 9800, www.creativeskillset.org

IABM TRAINING ACADEMY – 01684 450030, www.iabmacademy.org