Can I break into the industry without volunteering?

The arts sector is very popular among graduates, and yet I often have the feeling these people have the hardest time breaking into the industry without appropriate connections. Especially if ,like me, people might have made their decision a little later and have not volunteered in the sector during their studies. (I am 26, as such I am not eligible for roles created for 18-24 olds, either).

I feel like there are more training opportunities for people without a degree, especially in theatre and heritage, as they can still become apprentices. For graduates it is still a long way through bar work or unpaid volunteering and work experience, which I for example cannot afford.

I was always hoping to find an internship or a trainee opportunity in the sector, as I want to become an arts marketing professional, but most assistant vacancies ask for experience within the arts specifically, which makes it all the more difficult.

Is the amount of unpaid experience and small amont of non-apprentice opportunities down to funding cuts in the sector?

If it isn't possible for me to volunteer, should I just keep hoping or are there other ways to get more involved?

I have the enthusiasm to prove myself, I just don't know how anymore and I don't want to blame my circumstances.

— Malindy

Expert answers

Robert West's reply:

Good question! It ultimately depends who ask, but you certainly should be able to prove yourself without having to volunteer.

Let’s have a look at what you get from volunteering. It gives you an opportunity to learn or develop a new skill: planning an event for example can develop goal-setting, planning and budgeting skills. If you are thinking of a career change then volunteering is also a perfect way to explore new fields, and it gives real examples of your commitment, dedication and interests.

That’s all good stuff to take with you to job interviews – but the point is that what employers look for are knowledge, skills and experience. Sure you may get that from volunteering, but you can achieve these just as well from education, training, an apprenticeship or paid internship. You've probably already got some transferable skills and experience, but have you ever thought about what attributes you've got? No? Then how will an employer know?

There is a common confusion in your question as it is not actually about ‘volunteering’ but whether you should work for no money in order to get a foot in the door. The answer to that is firmly ‘no’. There certainly has been a culture of unpaid workers in the creative industries – and more shame on those companies who have and still do work in this way. What they are doing is playing off the fact that there is a high demand to work in the arts sector (although not necessarily where the skills gaps are that creative businesses need filling - e.g. there are lots of lighting designers, not so many lighting technicians). There will always be those who can afford the time and money to offer their services free of charge, but this needn't dampen your enthusiasm.

The ‘It’s not what you know but who you know’ sadly has a ring of truth. The answer though is to ‘get to know’. Build your networks. Make sure people know who you are, what you do, and what benefits you can bring. That acutally doesn't have to cost much (look how social media has helped bands get their work out there) or be infleunced by your age. Don't hope - act.

Volunteering can help as it enhances your personal skillset, attitudes and knowledge that can potentially help jobseekers in the labour market by giving you the edge. Yet so can a good training programme, a transferable skill identified from your pervious job, or even simply your life-experience. It’s all about how you tell the story, and as we all know a good story well told can break down walls.

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