A little more learning by doing

First published on November 2011.

As well as being craft entrepreneurs and employers, around a quarter of designer-makers based at Cockpit Arts are part time tutors, technicians and visiting lecturers. This makes the theme of education, creativity and employment a rather hot topic in the Cockpit studio corridors.

Opinion is divided on whether current course structure and content is fit for purpose in terms of nurturing technical skill. One to one tutoring time seems to be diminishing, with more reliance on self direction, facilitated by technicians. The jury is out on what the ‘right ’ balance is between having the freedom to explore ideas versus nurturing practical skill to create a specific finished product. What is certain is that craft based courses are shrinking and those that survive are often under-resourced. An increasing number of students are emerging with a lack of specialism, of practical problem solving skills and of confidence in handling materials. Essentially, not enough learning by doing.

During the summer months, the head count within the Cockpit Arts studios swells by about two thirds as an influx of eager interns and work experience placements fill the building. Throughout the year, over half of businesses outsource manufacture, often to other skilled makers. And the seasonal nature of the craft industry creates many other freelance work opportunities in administration, marketing and sales. Just seven percent of businesses at Cockpit currently employ on a PAYE basis however, and national workforce data provided by CCSkills (2011) echoes the fact that 77% of craft businesses employ less than five people. The reality is that many makers opt for self employment, with employment often acting as a vital stepping stone.

So what are craft employers looking for? Dexterity, attention to detail and strong technical skill, or the potential to develop this, are of course a must. But professionalism, passion, resilience and initiative are also high on the agenda. Not to mention the ability to turn one’s hand to the myriad of other tasks involved in running a mirco business! But many graduates lack these key skills and attributes. This is not an argument for programming business modules into craft based courses though; rather a case for guidance in professional practice, and entrepreneurial skill development throughout the educational journey. We need to equip makers for the marketplace, whether as an entrepreneur or intrapreneur.

A lack of industry and market awareness among craft graduates is commonplace in my experience. And few students, it seems, are made aware of the broader employment opportunities within the craft sector. Whether industry experience should be an obligatory element of degree level courses is debatable and also depends on the willingness of employers to provide structured and meaningful opportunities. All too often these opportunities are unpaid, creating financial barriers for those who cannot afford to work for free. And brokerage support is patchy at best.

The Future Jobs Fund and New Deal of Mind’s Creative Placements are two excellent examples of schemes that work for both the placement student and employee. One intern I spoke to last week explained that she’d learnt more in 3 months on her Future Jobs Fund internship than in the final year of her degree. This type of model also provides potential employers with essential recruitment support, an invaluable means to test the water with employment, and develop their people management competencies.

There is a definite willingness from employers to offer more apprenticeships and a recognition that they are vital in maintaining and furthering both traditional and contemporary craft skills. But good apprenticeships are hard to find, and even harder to fund. Employers would benefit from both brokerage and financial support, as well as coaching to ensure that apprenticeships are structured, well managed and add value. Again, there needs to be a recognition that the apprentice is likely to use such an opportunity as a springboard for their own solo career as a maker, rather than a pathway to employment, and programmes must be structured with this in mind.

My opinion is that a little more learning by doing would be welcome across the educational system. Specifically more time and space in the workshop, to work with one’s hands, nurture manual competency and experience the intrinsic benefits that this practice brings. It seems to me the most practical next step is for fit for purpose placement and apprenticeship schemes. Schemes that not only nurture technical craft skill, but also encourage entrepreneurial thinking in a real world environment, and are accessible to all. Organisations like Cockpit can play their role in supporting craft businesses to become profitable enough to invest in people. But we also need continuity in funded programmes to make a lasting impact and to better imbed good practice in the sector.

Creative Commons LicenceCreativity Money Love: Learning for the 21st Century by Creative & Cultural Skills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Illustrations by Paul Davis - http://copyrightdavis.blogspot.com/