The Rise Up Academy is among several notable organisations aiming to increase and diversify the intake of new engineering talent into broadcast. But how are individual companies reacting to the skills shortfall, asks David Davies.
The growing skills crisis in various areas of broadcast & media production has been a recurring theme of IBC365 articles in recent years – both in terms of a general shortfall in engineering & technical talent, and the difficulties surrounding recruitment into specific sectors (virtual production being an obvious example). But like so many aspects of the industry, it’s one that has arguably come into even sharper focus because of the pandemic.
Many companies had to part with permanent staff and/or reduce their use of freelancers during the crisis period, and the uncertainty of the entire period undoubtedly led to something of a freelancer exodus. In an industry that has always been hugely reliant on freelancers, this constitutes a major existential challenge – and inevitably compounds the existing challenges brought about by PAYE personnel leaving the industry, which in many cases will be the result of reaching retirement age.
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Now an inevitable cycle of demographic change is accentuating the problem, and it’s one that the Rise Up Academy and several other organisations are now seeking to tackle. But the purpose of this article is to speak to a couple of individual companies to find out how they are perceiving the issue: the impact it is having on their own businesses, the steps they are taking to enhance their appeal to industry newcomers, and the potential impact of automation on the skills needs of the future.
Pandemic prompts ‘serious rethink’
Lawo’s Chief Marketing Officer, Andreas Hilmer, said that although the pandemic “cannot be blamed for everything”, it undoubtedly led to many companies undertaking a certain degree of damage control: “They either made staff redundant or refrained from contacting trusted freelancers for a long time. This has triggered a serious rethink. Those with a financial buffer used their time to familiarise themselves with new technological concepts – notably cloud-related subjects and IP for distributed broadcast productions – and others decided to do something completely different.”
As business levels began to return to normal, other issues started to present themselves. Personnel who had remained “up to date with the latest technological developments were coveted by companies that paid more and promised not to offload them at the next pandemic, while others were happy to work hard for something they considered more rewarding outside their previous line of business.”
In Lawo’s case, noted Hilmer, it was fortunately possible “to navigate the pandemic without lay-offs, and [it is] thus not significantly affected by the raging war for talent. Obviously, other considerations – technological leaps and high job satisfaction – also play an important part in keeping a well-oiled team together.”
In terms of the longer-term challenges, Hilmer agreed that where senior engineers “suddenly vanish because ‘nobody realised they were that close’ to retirement, this will lead to a continuity issue.” He is also concerned about the knowledge base of new recruits, who “may be able to hit the ground running for the latest technology and server-based processing apps, but they be at a loss when it comes to legacy or existing gear that a wide customer base still uses. If nobody tells them about how things used to be done, this will likely have an adverse effect on a company’s reputation.”
Hilmer was not alone in identifying the convergence of broadcast and IT as having very specific implications for future personnel requirements, although he argues that “a broadcast background is still more important than the finest IT skills. Developers and programmers of broadcast control systems, for instance, need to be mindful of what broadcast users expect and develop a hunch for workflows that make the broadcast environment more agile.”
Nonetheless, with remote & virtual production becoming more ubiquitous, “IT skills will become more important as we progress. One might argue that the ratio of users of touchscreen-based devices who are curious enough to start programming their own apps is about the same as that of budding engineers who once soldered their own amplifiers, processors, channels strips, etc, and then made a living out of it.
Meanwhile, Hilmer indicated that Lawo will continue to place a strong emphasis on training (“which is becoming more important by the day”) and internships – the latter “a concept with a long tradition in Germany… Inviting undergraduate students to contribute to the development of new features, or to actively handle support issues, is an excellent way to showing them the added value the company provides, how the company ticks, its actual team spirit, and how smoothly they can develop their skills and move up the corporate ladder.”
‘A different type of resilience’
Glodina Lostanlen, Chief Process Officer at Imagine Communications, also highlighted the unifying of broadcast and IT disciplines as an instrumental factor in the present skills challenges. As the shift away from a formerly hardware-centric industry continues, it’s inevitable that “demand for cloud architects and software developers” will entice more people from the IT sector, but ‘traditional’ broadcast skills will still be required.
“You definitely still need the traditional skillset,” confirmed Lostanlen, who indicated that people coming from an IT background may need to have their expectations revised: “I think the type of resilience required in broadcast can be different from [some areas of IT]. Now obviously you need a very strong level of resilience in banking systems, for example, but applying that to the broadcast industry is much more complicated. It’s probably also more visible in terms of advertisers and sponsors. For example, a latency of a few seconds that might be good enough [in some IT sectors] is not going to work here, so there is a bit of a mindset shift involved.”
Lostanlen pinpointed flexibility and career development support as factors that will remain integral to securing and retaining the most talented personnel. “There is a new norm now, which in this competitive environment involves being flexible and allowing people to work from where they want,” she said.
“Another aspect that is changing is how the progress and performance of employees are measured. I think the answer here is a mix of using a more scientific metric and providing more context and meaning to what they are doing.”
Nonetheless, it’s also important to take account of the fact that younger generations “do tend to move on after 2 or 3 years; it’s very much in their DNA. Whereas broadcast engineers have [historically] often stayed with the same company for a very long time.”
As well as continuing to provide on-the-job training in new and emerging technology topics such as cloud and IP, Lostanlen urged organisations across the board to “leverage and promote diversity and inclusion; it’s clear there is a huge untapped potential there. In addition, I believe that more work can be done on [tweaking the image] of broadcast engineering in order to attract younger talent. So as well as the notion of an engineer being on-site at an event, there is also plenty of scope for generating enthusiasm about working in streaming, OTT monetisation and digital advertising applications. It is possible to make all of those areas feel exciting and meaningful, too.”
‘A better use of everybody’s time’
Of course, there is another factor that looms increasingly large in any dialogue about skills and personnel – automation. There is little doubt that it will play a part in plugging future skills shortages, but at present the general view is that it’s likely to be focused primarily on more repetitive tasks such as QC.
“I think we will see more automation around tasks such as verification and testing – and that will be partly as a way to get to results more quickly, but also to enable a better use of everybody’s time,” said Lostanlen, adding that valuable capacity is set to be freed up as a result and job descriptions will also evolve.
Hilmer was thinking along similar lines, too. “While automation will have an impact on job descriptions, it will probably first and foremost concern tasks a growing number of people no longer want to do,” he suggested. “Ultimately, as one experienced broadcast project engineer recently put it: “There are plenty of opportunities available out there for those who want to work; just keep your eyes and ears open and never stop learning.”