Andrew Harrison, ESSA director, says we should always fight to bring talent into the industry and encourage an appetite for success.
Consider the exhibition industry. It’s a busy, creative and vibrant industry whose raison d’etre is to bring products, services and brands to the attention of a wide variety of audiences. So why is it, when I speak to a room full of young design students, fewer than three per cent of them are even vaguely considering exhibitions and events as a career or even a first job?
It’s slightly paradoxical that this industry seems invisible to the very young people who will be the industry in 20 years’ time. We’ve taken some first steps here at ESSA, partnering with the University of Lincoln to give students a head start in exhibitions and events with access to ESSA resources, events and member companies.
Individual ESSA member companies are visiting schools and colleges and encouraging young people to consider events and exhibitions as a career.
Similarly, plenty of ESSA members have made a success of their apprenticeship programmes for school leavers. The great benefit of apprenticeship schemes is that it allows companies to teach young people not just in the skills they need, but also ‘the way of exhibitions’ – that is, to build up a cadre of new recruits who instinctively want to create a better, smarter, more extraordinary exhibition industry, to pick up the baton and run with it. But these programmes and initiatives, while effective and well-focused, are nibbling at the edge of the problem and aren’t touching the heart of the matter, which is that the exhibition industry is almost totally invisible to career starters.
Individual efforts by associations and exhibition businesses are often successful in exciting interest, but we have to collectively commit more deeply, expending the capital and resources needed to raise the visibility and the cachet of the whole industry, so that it attracts the best and the brightest young people into its ranks across the board. There are so many pathways to a satisfying and enthralling career in exhibitions, so many different roles and areas of expertise, that no single campaign is going to be enough.
We’ll need partnerships and relationships with national and regional educational institutions, fully fledged national apprenticeship schemes, well delineated and resourced learning pathways for specific trades, skills and roles within exhibitions and allied businesses.
I’m aware of how ambitious this sounds. I’m asking a lot, but I’m convinced that unless we act now, the UK exhibition industry will rumble along well enough with odd pockets of brilliance and innovation here and there, when it should be leading the world. There’s no doubt in my mind that the talent and the drive are there, but until young people are thinking about exhibitions as a career in ‘showbusiness’ on a par with careers in film and television, for example, then we’ll always be fighting to bring talent into the industry, rather than being in the position of having to only pick the very best of applicants.
Exhibition companies, as I mentioned earlier, are doing this for themselves, and as an association, we’re taking steps in this direction too, but it’s not going to be enough to raise the status of the whole industry.
The appetite for careers is definitely there, as I discovered when I spoke to the 40 design students I mentioned earlier. At the beginning of my presentation, only one member of the group showed any recognition of the industry. By the end of the day, 10 of them were considering a career in events, and half of those went on to interview for positions.
We can repeat that experience nationwide through the mechanisms I’ve touched upon, and provide careers advice and appropriate career entry points for every level of education and background. We can build and reinforce the image of exhibitions and events as a glamorous and exciting industry to work in, with travel, variety, rapid career progression and ample rewards for talent and hard work.
We have to begin here and now, so if you’ve had success with your youth recruitment, if you’ve got a successful apprenticeship scheme, if you’ve approached schools and colleges, then I want to hear how you did it, and what we can learn from you.