Skills shortages: The educators’ view of an industry in crisis

Imagine a world where you have a high-profile sporting fixture on the calendar, but an outside broadcast can’t take place because there aren’t enough engineers to make it happen. Or there’s nobody free in tech ops to call upon when the network goes down during a live studio broadcast. According to some key industry figures, this is the very real scenario facing the live production sector in the UK now, and it’s set to get even worse very soon.

Simultaneously, new platforms are developing all the time, particularly in sports media, which demand new or updated craft and presentation skills. And it’s not just traditional broadcasters who are after the fresh talent.

Talking to educators, who put considerable amounts of time and energy into preparing the next generation of media professionals, you get the very strong impression that we’re in the midst of a crisis.

Vision on

Polly Hickling, learning and development lead for media at Eviden and secretary/treasurer at SMPTE UK, has had a lot of experience teaching broadcast media technology, including an extensive tenure at Southampton Solent University.

“Since the fees changed multiple times and peaked [at up to £9,250 a year], the number of people going to university has started to drop off generally, but particularly so in our very niche area of media technology,” she says. “When I was teaching, I was having a first-year intake of around 100 students up to 2014. Then that went down and down until 2020 when I had around 20 applications.  The university said ‘You haven’t got enough people’, and did not let me recruit that year. It was the same for Ravensbourne the year before us, while Portsmouth University and Derby closed their broadcast engineering courses, three and four years ago respectively.”

Read more Exploring the growing challenges around recruiting top talent

Yet these engineering courses from the likes of Solent, Ravensbourne, Surrey and Salford have exhibited a very high conversion to immediate employment, with many students having secured their roles at least a year ahead of graduation.

“These courses generally have 100% employment rates,” affirms Hickling. “But we’re not talking about 100 students graduating anymore. We’re talking about 15 each year.”

An underlying problem seems to be one of awareness. Everyone knows what a TV or film director does. Not many people have even heard of a contribution engineer.

“I’ve been saying for at least 10 years that one of our biggest problems is that these teenagers do not know that the careers that we have are even available because they’re all hidden. They’re all behind the scenes. If you’re seeing one of our engineers, something is very wrong,” says Hickling.

The courses have also changed.  “When I was taking 100 students, I also had something like six or seven titles, which would tick everything related to media technology that a 16–17-year-old is interested in, from sound for games to outside broadcasting. We had titles that fitted everything,” she recalls. “We were then told we were only allowed one title. And funnily enough, when we had one title, I ended up with 11 students, because with nothing to spread it across, there was less to entice people in.”

“These courses generally have 100% employment rates. But we’re not talking about 100 students graduating anymore. We’re talking about 15 each year”

And there are lots of ‘hidden positions’ to fill. “The outside broadcast world is very short of traditional vision and audio engineers, with demand vastly outstripping supply, particularly in the freelance community,” says Andy Beale, co-founder of Rise Academy, and formerly chief engineer & head of innovation at BT Sport. “For example, we are aware of broadcasters having to change production plans to accommodate a lack of engineering talent to fulfil their editorial requirements.”

Beale describes how in the past 18 months of his time in a previous industry role he experienced multiple occasions when OB partner companies would call and say: ‘We’re really sorry. Could you do presentations in the studio rather than the outside broadcast? We can’t find enough engineers to man this truck’.

“They are desperate for talent coming through, but there’s so little now,” says Beale. “There are only about 25 graduates in the whole engineering space this year. I can’t stress how big a problem this is.

“At the same time, if you look at the demographic trends inside the industry, something like 65% of [current engineers] are aged 50+. We need to do something now, because when those people retire, probably at 60, then that problem will become worse for everyone.”

Read more Collaborative effort and action on diversity needed to avoid industry destabilisation 

Beale also points out that as technology is evolving there is an ever-increasing and significant demand for skills in ST2110 IP-based workflows, remote production and now software-defined and cloud technologies. He describes it as “an ever-changing skills matrix”.

“Arguably, the broadcast engineer has never been more qualified or more skilled, because you now have to have such a wide range of skills. We still need the nuts and bolts, the OB engineers who can come and rack cameras and set up broadcast trucks, but we also now need software-defined expertise, cloud compute security, and IP networking.”

Feedback from employers demonstrates an urgent need for graduates who are proficient in these emerging technologies. “They are also looking for candidates with a solid understanding of both traditional and new media platforms,” says Beale. “This feedback underscores the critical need for stronger industry-education collaboration to ensure that training programmes align closely with current and future industry demands. It is also essential that industry plays its role in supporting academia to ensure long-term viability and a robust pipeline of talent.”

Going live

New technology, new platforms and new ways of consuming media are also causing concern on the craft side of education.

“With a fast-moving, tech and trend-based industry like ours the job titles change yearly, so every year we try to predict where the jobs will be next year and adjust our teaching and assessments accordingly,” says Joe Towns, senior lecturer & course director at Cardiff Metropolitan University. “Where it was once traditional sports coverage and sports news programming in our curriculum, it [evolved into] social media and more of a focus on platform-specific digital content creation, then podcasting, and then sports documentary making. Now it’s live streaming, using all those other areas to push eyeballs towards the live product and take the product direct to consumer.”

Towns: ‘Every year we try to predict where the jobs will be next year and adjust our teaching and assessments accordingly’

There are shortages here too. “We used to teach the front-end skills around a live stream: presenting, commentating, reporting, producing, directing and operating cameras,” says Towns. “We are now working hard to create graduates who can also plan and set up livestreams; do the back-end things like write the tech spec and the risk assessments, design the camera plans, assess the connectivity and IT infrastructure, and troubleshoot when things go wrong. We want our graduates to appreciate the editorial aspects and the technical considerations that go with covering live sport. When a live stream company like Limitless, Buffoon, Onside, 24/7, or Shockwave approaches us, sometimes it’s because they are looking for on-screen talent, but more often than not they want people with the technical skills needed to get a stream up and running.”

Towns perceives a dearth of directing experience for multi-cam sports events, while another gap in sports broadcasting seems to be a shortage of EVS replay operators, particularly ones with rugby knowledge. “Most sport tends to take place on weekends so there is a huge demand all at the same time, but not enough people with the EVS skills to meet that demand,” says Towns. “Universities are not able to afford the EVS machines you would need to teach these skills. We use V-Mix on our university sport live streams and the principles of running in replays are similar, but you can’t build clips and playlists quite like an EVS operator can, so it’s not the same.”

He adds that the sport broadcast industry is also desperately looking for production managers. “They need people who can plan, look at logistics, and work with budgets,” he says. “We find teaching our students about the technical and not just the editorial gives them a better chance of finding employment in sport when they leave us.”

“More of the jobs now are with the clubs and sports organisations, the governing bodies, the event, or the brand, than with news organisations or channels,” he notes. “So there is a slight shift from journalism towards production skills. You need both, but it’s hard to get the balance right.”

“At bigger universities, there is a lot of administrative process to get through before you can change course content,” he continues. “Also a lot of the lecturers are from old media; brilliant but traditional broadcast news journalists, or local radio types who still think in terms of the 6pm and 10pm evening news. They know a story, but they don’t always know how to make that story work for modern audiences and new platforms or appreciate how to game algorithms to get it seen. These former journalists can be sceptical about short-form content, vertical content, live text coverage, and can be a bit snooty about content specifically for socials.”

Read more Is the media and broadcast industry not cool enough to attract new talent?

Subscribe and Get SVG Europe Newsletters