The Employment Issue
The Employment Issue
CX May 2018 is The Employment Issue, and we’re looking at all issues in the industry related to employment – how to get a gig, how to keep a gig, and how to keep educating yourself so you get better at your job. From the employer’s side, we find out what major companies are looking for in an employee, the challenges around hiring and superannuation, and discuss the thorny issues of training and certification.
As a second part to this feature, we’ve put together a big round-up of some of the great product-specific training courses run by distributors in Australia and New Zealand, with all the info you need to get out there and up-skill yourself.
We hope this proves a valuable resource for you, whether you’re trying to break in to the industry, trying to break out, or just keeping the tools in your kit sharp and relevant
– Jason Allen, Editor.
Nicole Russell – General Manager ANZPAC, Staging Connections – on passion, training, and pathways to employment
Nicole Russell is the General Manager ANZPAC at Staging Connections. She is responsible for leading the business to achieve strategic objectives and operational excellence throughout Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Over the past 16 years, Nicole has held many roles within the Staging Connections business, in sales, venues and management positions.
Passion for the Industry
Everyone in this industry has got a passion for technology. When looking for new employees, it’s vital that they have a passion for the industry and a keen focus on delivering exceptional customer service. If you don’t like the late nights and the fast pace, then you’re probably not cut out for it. Staging Connections works in-house at a number of five star venues, and there are high expectations from our clients.
We all work hard in events; they’re long hours, and if we didn’t have fun then
we wouldn’t be sticking around for long. Unlike some other businesses, we’re not just looking for event industry veterans. We take on recruits at all levels. We try to find people that align with our core values of integrity, innovation, empathy, performance excellence, enthusiasm, and collaboration. If someone ticks the boxes in these areas, we’re willing to take them on.
I think recruitment and retention is a big challenge to the industry. There is a genuine shortage of skills, and we can’t rely on the traditional forms of recruitment anymore. We need to be proactive; we need to be talking to students when they’re at college or school, explaining what our industry is like, and the potential career progression. A number of our people joined the business 15 or 20 years ago and have worked their way up to very senior positions. We’ve got technicians who came through and went into sales or senior management roles.
Last year we were looking for new technicians, but we weren’t getting much traction through the traditional recruitment advertising. So we created an event called ‘Access AV’ at ANZ Stadium. We invited people who were interested in the industry to come along and also invited colleges to bring students interested in learning more about a career in AV.
It was a fantastic opportunity for them to meet technicians, get face-to-face with the production teams, and play with the latest toys. The attendees learnt a lot, and it opened their mind as to what this industry is, the types of jobs that they could do, and that they could specialise in a particular area.
We had a lot of great conversations, and recruited candidates on the day. We’ve found that taking an active approach with the colleges and educational institutions is crucial.
Advice for Job Seekers
My advice to people trying to get into the industry is to do your research. There’sso many great companies out there that provide mentoring programs, on-the-job training, up-skilling programs, and buddy systems. Those programmes are there to help kick-start careers.
Across the industry, there’s a great support network from trainees right through to senior technical event directors. You don’t need to have all of the skills to get into the work force, just a passion for technology and events, and the right attitude. A lot of businesses are willing to work on the skills gaps, and bring people up to speed in whichever areas they need.
Women in AV Australia
We’re involved with the Women in AV Australia initiative, run by Toni McAllister of AV1 and many of our industry peers, including AV1, AV24/7, AV Partners, the ICC Sydney, and Scene Change. There are many great companies coming together for this great initiative.
We’re talking to women in our industry to work out why they don’t see AV as a career path in the same way as men. We’ve surveyed those women across Australia and we’ve got some really great feedback on where they came from, which was mainly arts, theatre, and film.
Many didn’t realise there is much more to a career in AV other than live music concerts, there’s a vast range of creative and corporate roles out there. We’re looking at ways to unite and empower technicians, and we need to tackle things together as an industry.
We’ve always had the traditional traineeship at Staging Connections,
but techs these days really thrive on continuous knowledge and sharing. We’ve looked closely at our internal programs to make them more concentrated on the individual’s training needs. We’re doing skills analysis with our technicians and finding out from them what training they want and need. We’re still delivering the fundamental skills, but we need to be more focused on people’s careers and progression. And we’ll be delivering this via a mixture of classroom-based and on-the-job training.
Chris Dodds, Director of The P.A. People, on knowledge and experience
For over thirty years, Chris Dodds has led conceptual design and execution for major projects – specialising in large scale ‘design and construct’ contracts involving innovation and leading edge technology.
With 40-plus years under The P.A. People’s belt, the ebb and flow of skilled people on our team has seen many scenarios and some of our staff have been here since the early days. Some have gone, some have come back or still freelance with us, and we are proud that our staff have made a contribution to the broader industry.
You’ll find PAP-trained people at Jands, Hills, Audio Brands, Sydney Opera House, ICC , and many other places.
From an integrator’s perspective, what can we say? – knowledge developed from experience is a characteristic of professionals that have put in the hard yards over time and across a variety of tasks – design, integration and delivery. It is simply not possible to ‘desktop’ this stuff and expect to provide solutions that serve venues (or major events for that matter) for their required lifecycle.
To learn design and delivery takes time. We try to take people from an understanding of requirements of fabrication in wood and metal, through to programming and assembling complex systems. The nuances of system design and delivery can only be learned by experience; the concept of doing a two, three or four year course and then knowing what is required across the variety of projects we encounter is just that – a concept. It is not reality.
The same goes for rental; ours is not a cookie-cutter part of the industry. Every job throws up new challenges. Again, system design and technical smarts that work on the ground only come with rounded experience.
So, bottom line. We don’t need a lot of people, we need the right people, and attitude is right-up-there as a requisite whatever level you come in at. People who ‘want’ to work is equal priority. The stuff we do isn’t always easy, but the challenges are rewarding. Knowledge gained adds to skill-level, and that, at the end of the day is what (hopefully) keeps clients.
Gra Whitehouse – General Manager, Australia, NW Group, on training, superannuation, education, and worker’s rights.
Gra came through the industry as a touring sound guy, and joined Norwest as a state manager in 2002. Now the National General Manager of NW Group Australasia, Gra believes in sensible and sustainable wage reform for the live production industry. He has a Masters degree in Business Administration, and a Diploma in Audio Production that he got for free in the early 90’s because his mate was the lecturer.
My current concerns are around the training organisations, and the preparedness (or lack thereof) they’re instilling into people who are paying for those courses. That’s not to say they’re not teaching them their craft basics, but I wonder if there could be a higher degree of industry business understanding that forms part of the training?
Currently school leavers or other budding production professionals are facing a bill of somewhere between $16,000 and $50,000 for a qualification, ranging from a diploma, to a Bachelor’s degree delivered by a private training organisation.
Coming from that angle, (in my opinion) the systematic dismantling of the TAFE system as we know it is a bad thing for us, particularly in Queensland where it seems to have suffered the most radical commercialisation. There’s still great lecturers out there and they’re doing a great job where they can, but the enormous fees take away the whole ethos of TAFE, which was about accessible vocational training for the common woman and man.
TAFE was for kids who weren’t suited to the university system. Once you start making it a commercial enterprise, like it’s become, the discussion becomes about the haves and the have-nots. I think we need to find a way to get back to accessible training for everybody, not just hopefuls who have a lazy $20k.
What happens to all those kids who have a passion for the arts that would have otherwise lead them to a career in production, but have been stifled because “having a go” doesn’t generally line up emotionally with “having a huge debt”.
Ok, so they’ve come out of their courses, steaming hot and ready to roadie. About then, somebody says, “Yes, you can have a job but you need an ABN”. So they get their ABN and then embark on a road of sham contracting with no wage protection and no superannuation.
That’s okay when you’re 22, because superannuation’s, like, 40 years away, and what do you care? You should care a lot. Don’t look at it as retirement savings, look at it as 9.5% of your money that somebody isn’t paying you!
I think this is one of the contributors to the mental health issues we see developing amongst our retiring industry veterans.
None of us ever think about life after 60 until we’re mid-40s. And right about then, all those invoices you wrote as a sole trader, that somebody said in 1995 were an “all-up day rate”, come home to bite a big chunk out of your arse. A 9.5% plus compound interest sized chunk. Ouch. That’s a lot of arse.
The ATO has been really clear on Employee/Contractor determination since 2010, but for some reason, as an industry we largely ignore it. And it’s easy to see why. Doing the right thing as an employer is expensive; once you start paying people properly then your labour cost is bound to be around 15% more expensive than those who don’t; there’s the super, maybe state payroll tax, maybe higher Workcover premiums.
Doing the right thing isn’t free. But it’s RIGHT.
There are, of course, those workers who are absolutely, very, very serious about being contractors, that’s how they want to run their business. Many of them establish themselves as Pty Ltd companies and run their businesses correctly within that structure.
Question number one on the ATO’s Employee/Contractor Decision Tool which we’ve been using since 2011, asks “who do you pay to do the work”. If you’re employing a company to do the work, and you make the arrangement with the company (or the contractor acting as the company) your arrangement is most likely solid.
However, simply having an ABN (not Pty Ltd) leads to a series of questions that will almost inevitably point to the person being an employee in the eyes of the ATO, and therefore most likely be entitled to super, and also the likelihood of the employer having to withhold PAYG tax.
You can’t get around it with an ABN alone, according to the ATO. And frankly, given we’re talking about casual crew, why would we want to get around that? They’re the most vulnerable workers in the system.
I commented on a social media post about this and I got a couple of PMs saying “You’re making it hard for us smaller businesses. We couldn’t possibly hire people if we had to start paying superannuation.” That’s like saying you couldn’t be in business if you had to pay your rent, or your phone bills.
The first thing you pay should be your employee’s wages and entitlements, and if you can’t afford that then you definitely shouldn’t be in business.
The Award, WHS, and Quality Crew
Simply paying wages isn’t the whole tale of course, you need to keep in line with the award. (MA000081, Live Performance Award 2010). The award has moved forward; there’s been a wage determination every July, and the minimum wage has gone up progressively, albeit slowly.
It’s a competitive disadvantage doing things the right way and expecting the industry at large to follow suit, but it’s not really a choice. The award provides certain avenues of flexibility that help us (Live production businesses) to operate within a more industry-specific framework. It’s unwieldy, but… y’know… it’s the law.
It’s getting harder to employ great crew. There’s a skill shortage, and here we are, back at that starting point of the vocational education system dismantling itself. So filling from the bottom, ie, a sustainable workforce, has to be more than just opening the doors to a bunch of freshly-minted “producers” with high aspirations and HELP fee debts and pointing them to the truck.
We (NW Group) want to be an employer of choice; that means paying people properly and legally, making sure they’re safe at work, and then continuing their training in a manner that recognises we’re a technology business in a quickly moving industry.
We haven’t got all the answers, nor are we perfect, but we’re striving to formulate great training regimes alongside easy to manage, worthwhile WHS policies, and solid wage compliance.
We know we’re not alone with that stuff, there’s a bunch of great companies focussing on the same principles; but there’s still a cowboy element existing out there, they walk amongst us; they’re the ones saving a bit on crew wages, and a bit more on PA Tower ballast…
How to Get Ahead
The upcoming employees that excite me, the ones in our business that are advancing, are the ones that come in with a thirst for knowledge and skill, but don’t rely on us exclusively to provide it. They’re the ones that stay back after hours and figure out how to use that piece of equipment themselves.
They have the motivation to expand their knowledge in a cross-discipline fashion, sound lights, vision. You need to be connected to everything, to understand everybody else’s discipline on some level. You also need to understand your entitlements as an employee, and insist on them.
John Maizels – A Call for Education and Certification
John Maizels escaped from the corporate world to follow the dream of becoming an underpaid freelancer. He’s currently a Technical Director in TV, a Broadcast Engineer, a live gigger, and teaches technology in TAFE and private colleges. When he’s not looking for work he presides over Technorama.org.au and can often be found seeking a decent coffee and a solution to a better educated workforce
If we all said tomorrow, “You’re not going to get a gig unless you’re qualified,” well, I’d be out of a job.It creates an interesting situation for people who want to run training colleges.
The regulator needs any institution that’s conferring degrees to be able to demonstrate that their staff are on a development treadmill. Teachers must be qualified to a higher level than they are teaching. If they’re teaching Bachelor students, they need to have attained at least a Bachelors themselves. If they’re teaching Masters, they need to be Masters or higher. And who in this industry has a Masters?
We need to do something disruptive, and certification is an appropriately disruptive tool. It’s one of the very few knobs we as an industry can turn, but to have any effect a very large number of people need to get behind it, and that’s a painful road.
I am not saying the only way forward is certification, but I can see that the formula works. If industry leaders step up, the processes will create a better-educated workforce.
At the moment, the workforce has no incentive to want to go and educate themselves. There are no goals, there’s no reason to invest, and there’s no reward for investing. One option is to do exactly what accountants, plumbers, and hairdressers do, which is say, “If you don’t have a ticket, you’re not allowed to work.”
The impact of that is obvious: the people who want to work in that job go and get the ticket through education, and then a test which says “you’re OK on the gig”. Because people need to go and do the education to get the ticket, that education becomes available. The demand creates an ecosystem and a business model.
But what’s happened in this country is that the employers say, “We want an educated workforce, but we’re not prepared to pay for it or recognise it”. And no-one will pay for freelancers to go and get educated because they’re freelancers (“why should we invest in training someone who’s going to work for our competitor tomorrow?”).
Despite our industry being hugely casualised, most employers don’t have any interest in the freelancer training process. They want people to be trained, but haven’t stepped up to having skin in the game.
Let’s assume there were courses available that were sufficiently rigorous to be meaningful and trustworthy. Why are people going to go and do those courses? Would successful industry practitioners pay money when they don’t have to? Clearly not.
But I can see what has worked elsewhere, and a change is achievable. It’s just that the education/reward cycle requires a huge culture shift for it to become embedded.
And it’s only when the relationship between education, recognition and employment becomes embedded that it’s going to be valuable for us all. That cultural shift needs involvement, not just at the technical level, but in the C-Suite; the COO, CEO, and board-level saying, “No, hang on, this is how we want to run our business. An educated empowered workforce, whose skills we’re prepared to recognise in a meaningful way.”
Options are everything – Showbiz can be very cruel – Julius Grafton on having a ‘Plan B’
Julius Grafton is the owner and publisher of CX Magazine, and has worked in the industry in a staggering variety of roles for over 40 years.
I always worry about famous people like musicians and actors who have a ‘break between engagements’. They can’t serve a bar or flip a burger without someone yelling ‘Hey Shannon, what you doin’ here?’
A disgraced footballer recently wrote his redemption chapter full of sins and the lowdown after a million-dollar season ripped by coke and assaults. He worked as a traffic controller. He chose the overnight shift, and still someone recognised and called his fluoro shirted arse out – ‘Hey ‘bloke’, whadsap?’
Us black-shirts don’t have the stigma of fame, we are free to work whatever we find and wherever, when the real work evaporates. Some of us have trades or skills elsewhere, so we segue back to the old work. Others are left struggling.
A couple of lowball but satisfying options exist, once you overcome your pride barrier. That’s the thing that says you are a gun tech, great events person, or rocket organiser. You are for sure, but unless you get that $40 an hour, you’re screwed in our high cost cities. Sydney life demands you pay $300 a week for a room in a share-house or a share-flop, and the quality varies from great to very, very grungy.
Further out you’re paying $250+ for a sweaty concrete room in a unit block 20km and a 40 minute commute. Some locations are a serious 1.5 hour commute to the city, with no certainty of trip times.
Australia’s big cities are not affordable for lower paid specialists, like teachers, police and nurses. Or theatre techs, riggers, and people like us who work to keep the show on stage. There’s no let up on this. ‘Affordable housing’ is a slogan but it is not an available concept.
Where to Go
Some of the greatest names in lighting design (no kidding) moonlight as factory hands at one of the big lighting production supply firms. It’s a leveller for everyone, and a nice back-fill for them. I see ‘esteemed everyones’ at audio and video houses too. Working the floor is good discipline, good sweaty healthy, and it is a good look for the younger starters to see that reality.
It gets harder further out the food chain. That’s why I recommend a couple of more elementary pursuits, namely The Gig Economy, and Community Work. Funny‘nuff, I’ve done both recently. Mostly to keep occupied as my media and events commitments have ebbed and flowed. I’m not one for the couch.
Airtasker and any of the random thing ‘gig sites’ where you flog your whatever is great, I haven’t worked in them but I have hired. I got some Ikea assemblers who were a travelling carnival type couple, real salt of the earth and a lot of fun. Next time an I.T. guru who needed to get off the screens and onto the tools. Absolution at $45 an hour (less fees and charges). You can’t beat it for a cleaner, or a party chef. Maybe you need a thing delivered – just dial up.
No one gets rich in the Gig Economy. I did a run of Uber before and after it went legal, and really enjoyed the crazy. The money is basic, and you really have to account for car, fuel, and GST costs as you go, or you’ll get flogged. It is a great stop-gap, easy to get in to, and ultra-flexible. You just log in when you want to drive, log out at the end, and each week the money arrives.
But my really satisfying gig is the Community Transport driver role where I drive a 20 seat bus one day each week when I am in Sydney. I am a volunteer, they give me $25 lunch money, I drive the bus out at 7.45am. I collect my bus assistant Scott, and we then pickup 10 or 12 retired folk from their homes and deliver them to the mall.
We do a second run to collect more, drop them and then have a break before collecting the first batch with their weekly shopping. Scott carefully loads them and their shopping onto the Coaster Bus, with my back-stop help. We drive them home, he walks them inside, and carries their bags.
These guys totally rely on us, and we are ultra-careful about them, I drive like an annoying person avoiding potholes and speed humps, getting the bus and the drop-down stairs right onto their curb.
They are us in the future, and they really appreciate us right now as we help them.
I find it ultra-rewarding – and quite tiring given the level of care and interaction. In addition, the team ethos in community care is, in the case of the Leichhardt- Marrickville Community Transport company, quite excellent. Like-minded people looking out for each other as well as the customers.
What to Do
Too often I hear directly or through channels that someone is in trouble. It would be great if everyone had a ‘plan B’ that could be switched on before the eviction notice arrived, because at that stage you really need someone closer than me to advise you.
I find that offering money brings short relief but soon more money is needed. At that stage the world is not a nice place. There are safety nets out there – Support Act is a great one, but you can’t rely on the net.
I’d encourage you to actively get set up to drive Uber (or similar) and also go volunteer at a community transport company. Australia usually has one for most council areas, it is the backbone that keeps people mobile and independent and out of aged care. There are a variety of volunteer roles, including bus assistant (no license required) and independent transport driver – where you don’t need that licence.
Working one day here and there as a volunteer will get you known in that network and get you connected. Most paid workers in community transport started as a volunteer and got hired later on. Consider it an investment of your time against the future – yours and the clients.
My community transport company are open to discussions with potential bus driver volunteers who may have a heavy license but not a bus driver authority (that is a separate permit that does cost money to obtain). So keep that approach in mind when you talk around your local area.
I would avoid ‘buying a job’ like a coffee shop or a franchise. That converts actual money into dead money unless you are a maestro who enjoys working 20 hours a day with a smile and not a pile. The final option is one that some of my friend circle have enacted – leaving Australia and living in the low-cost territories to our north.
Which works great until you get sick. Bring on that ‘Plan B’ and come tell me what it is!
Further reading: Our round-up of gear-based training provided by distributors of audio, lighting and install equipment, in Aus and NZ 2018. Read here