‘Stop pretending there are jobs when there aren’t’

Posted: 03/09/2013 in free archaeology, Research
Tags: , , , ,

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.

  1. E. E. Linn says:

    The sad thing is that not only is this true, it only scratches the surface of the extent of the ridiculousness of the situation. With 10 plus years of paid and unpaid international archaeology and heritage management experience plus 2 MAs it is still nearly impossible to secure and sustain a career in heritage. Is this a hangover from the past when the field of archaeology, history, and the like were pursued by the financially secure as a hobby? Is it the result of a complete saturation of the market with more graduates than jobs? Or has the business world not yet caught up to the idea that the heritage is a valued and necessary industry in today’s societies?
    Interesting to consider the international discrepancies in wages between the heritage sector in places like Australia (where not only can you make a living but can thrive on the salaries), UK (don’t get me started), Europe, and the US.

    The fundamental question is does one keep fighting for that coveted job and accept perpetual financial insecurity? Or give up and pursue financial security in an alternate industry with a lower likelihood of job satisfaction?

    • samarkeolog says:

      I have no idea. I’m seriously tempted to say that people should get out and stay out, but I’m very aware that just because they “escape” doesn’t mean they’ll be saved. (People may end up outside the profession and insecure.) Maybe the best people can do is develop skills that they can offer to cultural and (purely) commercial projects, then consume enough recreational drugs to cope with living contract-to-contract for the rest of their lives…

      Whatever you do, the important thing is not to become a dick. (I like to believe that I’m merely doing a very good impression of one…)

  2. […] the 99% – or 99.67% – of people who cannot get a job in cultural heritage have something to look forward to. They cannot get part-time, entry-level work; they cannot even […]

  3. LeeJohn says:

    Can someone who has either worked or who is working in the Heritage sector give me some advice and a straight answer – I have just been accepted to start my MA in Sept for Heritage Management and secured a part time voluntary position with National Trust but despite this – I feel there isn’t enough or any at all full time positions available in this sector???

    • Sam Hardy says:

      I’ll post this as a stand-alone piece. Hopefully you’ll get some answers (but, whatever you do, you can always apply skills and experience in other sectors).

  4. […] someone who has either worked or who is working in the Heritage sector give me some advice and a straight answer – I have just been accepted to start my MA in Sept for Heritage Management and secured a part […]

  5. Millie says:

    I have worked in the Heritage/Museums sector for ten years. I volunteered and worked part-time (sometimes paid) in nearly every sector of museums, galleries, conservation, learning & access, collections management, curatorial (history, oral and social and fine art collections).
    I have trained in project management, finance, collection management and information management. I have worked in council and national institutions across the UK.

    I have never secured a permanent position and often have struggled to even get an interview.
    Most often the feedback is lacking or If I have received any it usually is the case….. ‘I’m overqualified’ or ‘I don’t have the MA in museums studies’ (I have an undergraduate degree and post graduate degree) or ‘I don’t have enough experience’, in a particular area… even though the roles could easily use transferable skills.
    What I have found consistently in my experience is, roles go to friends, volunteers who are doing the job already and most often the case… employees who are already known to the line manager hiring.
    It is very rare that a ‘new’ person will be successful and if they do, it us usually because they have a very specific skill such as being a conservator or taxidermist. Sometimes it will be someone who has a PhD (in the case of curatorial roles in London, a PhD is now a minimum requirement for many institutions).
    One of the biggest issues in the industry is nepotism and social class. Jobs often are shared amongst a select clique, who hire one another (networking and knowing the right people is essential) and there is still a major issue with social class and those who are able to pursue volunteer and unpaid internships having the advantage over those who need to work and simply don’t have the ability to volunteer or work, often very little money.

    The other issue which has arisen since they introduced the internships that were supposedly meant to help those from ethnically diverse and poorer backgrounds, is that some staff choosing the interns are throwing out applications, that have poor grammar, from known poor areas or those people they thought were the ‘wrong type’. Never mind the applications themselves are very challenging to many, the application process defeating the whole point of being ‘inclusive’.
    Leading to the same middle class, well educated, white students getting them.

    The internships/traineeships, also create the issue that, those who are volunteering, studying or working part time in the heritage sector are not able to gain access to possible training and suitable roles because there are no traineeships/internships catering for them. Which is increasing as more universities now offer museum or related courses.

    I have also known that many interns/trainees are being hired for jobs because it looks good for the institution publicly to hire them, whether or not they are qualified or capable of doing the role. One example, was a trainee who hated working in museums, expressed this openly to colleagues that they found it boring but needed the money so applied and was successful in securing a much sought after post.

    Coming from a deprived background myself, I have also found that even when you are employed in a role, the general hierarchy and historic snobbery in many of these institutions, often can make it a challenge to change the status quo.
    Having to work often two jobs, as well as volunteer or work part time, makes it very hard to ‘rock the boat’ or challenge attitudes when you are reliant on references and funding applications for your roles.

    The latest thing to occur is the use of temping agencies by many institutions. Temps are being used for fixed/long term contracts to get around having to pay sickness or holiday pay. They can pay a temp to do a role that ordinarily they would have had to give a proper fixed term or permanent contract. This is a new cost saving measure and sadly is on the increase.
    The interviews for these roles are intense, they are even more competitive and even if you are successful there is so much pressure to be the best that they can be very stressful. Often you are doing tasks out-with the job description and with the understanding that if you complain or are not attentive enough you have 200 other people who want your job. Nepotism again is a big issue for temping, it is much easier to get someone you know or a friend in to these posts as they do not have the same Hr protocols as other ways or hiring.

    In general, I have really loved my job when i have had one and though it has been sometimes difficult to know you are there only for a fixed term/temporary role, the work has been meaningful to make it worthwhile.
    I love the people you meet and the opportunities you have to inspire and help others to learn about their culture, environment, history. As well as the engagement with the public, objects and research skills you gain. I truly think the stress and disappointment is worth it when you are doing the job you love. Which is the main reason I have continued to try and secure a permanent contract and maintained a foot in the heritage sector.

    The biggest issue, is the lack of honesty in how hard the sector is to get in to, how financially poor it will make you, the sexism that your husband or partner should support you or that its normal for most of us to have second or third jobs and the nepotism… if your not in with the cool kids (the friends of friends, going to exhibition openings, which most often are invite only) then your not in with a chance of securing the role.
    I really don’t see how this will change as nobody is openly addressing it and with the lack of funding from the government there are still too few jobs and too many applicants.

    I hope this has not made you feel like the heritage/museum sector is not for you. I just wanted to share my experience so you know how to improve your chances of success.
    The most important thing you need is perseverance, financial support (shift work or a flexible employer who knows you want to work in museums and is happy to be flexible to allow you to do volunteering etc) and a strong sense of self.

    This is one of the most competitive industries you can go in to and sadly it can be quite degrading to be told no over and over again. So most importantly try and compliment your career aspirations with something else you enjoy, so your focus is on two areas.

    That way if your not successful, you have something else to fall back on.
    But I will end this with these last words…

    ‘Tis a lesson you should heed:
    Try, try, try again.
    If at first you don’t succeed,
    Try, try, try again. (W.E.Hickson).

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