Seven months ago, an anonymous would-be museum worker (a graduate of the MA in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester) plaintively appealed for their colleagues to ‘[s]top pretending there are jobs when there aren’t’.
90% unemployment six months after graduation
At that time, six months after they’d graduated, despite having qualifications and voluntary work experience, ‘[n]early 90%’ of their class were unemployed. The anonymous author had volunteered at seven cultural heritage institutions over the course of eight years, and had done a ‘three-month unpaid placement [unpaid internship], which put [them] in debt just to get there’, but had then been repeatedly rejected because they had not done eighteen months’ paid work (in the cultural heritage industry) on top of everything else.
I have so far been offered one unpaid voluntary role of three months in a museum an hour away costing me £70 a week in travel costs and one (unpaid) 25-hour live-on-site role as a caretaker where you have to pay the bills on the “free” flat they give you.
Marry money, have money or work yourself into the ground
One of the lowlights was their would-be colleagues’ idea of pragmatic advice:
I was told that I would need a partner to support me, savings or a part-time evening job to support my expenses.
Ladies, find yourselves a husband! You know you want to (… have minimal economic security)! What do you mean, it’s not secure for the women (and most workers are women) or healthy for the industry for the workers to be economically dependent on their partners!?
Well then, you’d better have been born into money! What do you mean, this automatically excludes most people, and does so in an anti-meritocratic way, which generally prevents economically-insecure people from entering socially-influential professions!?
Well then, get a(nother) job! What do you mean, it’s not healthy for the workers or secure for the industry for the workers to subject themselves to acute and chronic overwork without even the guarantee (or any likelihood) of compensation in the form of job security or financial stability!?
Some people just refuse to be helped…
Jobs that aren’t there even when they are
Do not invite us to interviews when you know we do not have the relevant experience to get the job. I have been to five interviews where they said I performed really well in the interview, but didn’t have enough paid experience.
That is a particularly offensive practice, because it is probably done to cover up a fixed hiring process. To maintain the public/legal fiction that the employer is not giving the job to someone (for example, a former student or a favoured volunteer) on a promise, the employer must invite other people for interview.
Possibly the worst aspect of this (though every aspect is repulsive) is that the employer probably specifically invited comparatively inexperienced “competition”, in order to excuse their employment of their pre-selected candidate. (At least one friend of mine was not invited to interview for a job precisely because they were sufficiently experienced and the employer could not have defended not hiring them.)
‘a paid position in the field is highly unlikely’
I am now giving up on my plans for a career in heritage as I do not think it will ever support me enough to have a comfortable life, a home and a family.
The museum sector needs to be more honest with its new recruits and tell us from the onset that the chance of a paid position in the field is highly unlikely.
And it is literally highly unlikely. You will probably not get paid work in the museum sector. The Ragged School Museum‘s Museum Learning Officer, Chris Bennion, noted that they had ‘advertised a part-time entry level role and had 300+ extremely good applicants‘ (and, thus, an unknown number of “normal” applicants who didn’t realise that entry-level work was an exceptional privilege). ‘It’s unbelievably tough out there.’
An anonymous commenter with a degree, four years’ volunteering experience and ten years’ retail work experience ‘managed to get a job as a visitor services assistant‘, which is a shopfloor position equivalent to (and actually including) being on the till or stacking the shelves. They made it sound like an achievement; and, absurdly, it was.
If you’re skilled and experienced, you might be eligible for training
… Or, if you’re skilled and experienced, you might increase your chance of a temporary low-wage job to 1-in-300…
The Heritage Lottery Fund’s Skills for the Future programme finances a nationwide training programme. Last year, Museums Galleries Scotland had 3,200 applicants for 20 one-year paid internships (a 1 in 160 chance). The British Museum and partner institutions’ two-year traineeship had 1,533 applicants for 5 paid traineeships (a 1 in 300 chance).
Many, if not most, of the British Museum’s applicants had postgraduate qualifications and all of its shortlisted candidates had ‘a track record in volunteering‘. It is widely lamented that you need to have experience in order to get a job (and you need to have a job in order to get experience). In the cultural heritage industry, you need to have experience in order to get training…
Networking will still favour the already-relatively-privileged
The British Museum’s Keeper of Conservation and Scientific Research, David Saunders, has explained the value of the programme: ‘They get to network and put into practice the things they have learned in theory. We get to see who the stars of the future are.’ Yet the museums do not see who the stars of the future are; the stars of the future are (a tiny minority of) those whom the museums see.
These traineeships should disrupt nepotism, and advance meritocracy and social mobility. The trainees’ opportunity to network might be seen as a necessary evil, but it will not fundamentally change the constitution of the profession, especially as the trainees will still be those people who can afford to build up a track record in volunteering.
Instead, these traineeships will simply consolidate (and valorise) a system founded and dependent upon unpaid labour, basically reserved for ‘nice Oxbridge girl[s]’ rather than ‘people off the dole’ (as an unnamed leader of an arts organisation described his selection of interns).
Even the flagship training programme for the cultural heritage profession achieves below-average employment
Furthermore, the (albeit excitable) Daily Mail is alarmed when more than 15% of certain universities’ graduates are neither in work nor in training six months after graduating. And 15% is already an above-average level of unemployment. Yet 25% of the Heritage Lottery-funded trainees – who are qualified, skilled and experienced, and who have completed extremely selective traineeships at leading cultural institutions – cannot find paid work. And they were trained precisely in order to secure the future of the profession and the community property for which the profession is responsible.
This year, the Scottish programme had 2,000 applicants (a 1 in 100 chance). Are the odds going down because people are giving up?
‘we are not exactly having the best time of our lives’
As these vulnerable (would-be) workers are in such difficult positions, it is especially troubling whenever you hear that the people who deal with them don’t even deal with them kindly. The anonymous author cautioned,
You should know that every time you turn a young person away from a job interview, a little part of us dies inside.
And next time you interview one of us, please be gentle, we are not exactly having the best time of our lives.