The old jokes about creative arts and humanities graduates serving at the local fast food outlet are hard to put to rest – they speak to long-held concerns around the value of creative degrees, and to worries that students of creative arts programs aren’t employable when they graduate.
But soon-to-be released national graduate tracking research findings conducted by my research team at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation show that, while Australian creative arts graduates can take a while to settle in to their careers, their outcomes are actually very good.
But it seems likely the federal government’s new “earn or learn” social security policy will hinder the graduates’ attempts to launch into creative careers.
Building a creative career
It is well known that students of creative arts degrees (visual, performing and literary arts, music, film and television) can have a tougher time than others becoming established in careers.
That’s partly because of stiff competition for graduate level positions, but it is also because of the way the creative labour market operates. In contrast to degrees such as pharmacy, engineering or education, there is no clear accredited vocational pathway for creative graduates, and an enormous range of career destinations is possible.
Creative careers are also usually proactively self-navigated and self-managed, with strong likelihood of self-employment. In many creative fields, getting or creating a job happens through informal processes based on “who you know”, previous experience, and quality of creative work, rather than formal application processes.
This means that graduates need to spend time building a name for themselves through activities like internships, active networking, mentoring, and short term project work. It can take Australian creative arts graduates one to two years to find their feet.
Where do creative graduates end up?
The good news is that graduate tracking studies also show that graduates are actually very employable, both within the creative industries and beyond them. When surveyed, the creative graduates in our tracking study also reported high levels of career satisfaction.
Many graduates find stable employment working in creative roles for organisations outside the creative sector, or for firms that provide creative services such as design or media/communications to other businesses. Some graduates go on to more training and move into education, law or business.
Interestingly, even graduates who are working in what they describe as “non-creative” positions are more likely than not to report that they add significant creative value in those roles – a serious blow to the notion that creative graduates are ending up in McJobs.
The most common types of creative value that creative graduates add include: creativity and coming up with new ideas; critical thinking; written and verbal communication and teamwork skills; and specific disciplinary capabilities such as visual design, performance and creative writing.
Adding creative value through work is linked strongly with career satisfaction among graduates wherever they end up.
Most of the creative arts graduates who pursue careers in core creative arts fields will build a portfolio career, made up of overlapping creative and non-creative jobs, including work as an employee and self-employment.
Our research suggests that the portfolio career permits creative workers to manage career risk and reward by combining less and more risky types of work – such as working part-time as an employee making corporate videos while becoming established as a maker of video art.
If the elements of the portfolio career are related to one another, as in this example, graduates might be able to enhance their creative practice overall by applying skills, knowledge and professional relationships acquired in one job to another.
As graduates transition into the world of work, other elements of the career risk management strategy can include financial support from family – and of course there is the safety net of social security.
Creative graduates, unemployment & “earn or learn”
We know from our graduate tracking studies that Australian creative arts graduates generally do not rely on social security for ongoing financial support while becoming established in careers.
In our study, while half of the graduates had been unemployed at some point since graduation, the average length of unemployment for graduates was two months. One in three of the graduates who had been unemployed at some point was unemployed for less than one month.
Even though social security really is only a “safety net” for creative graduates, it is likely they will still be adversely impacted by new “earn or learn” requirements for New Start and Youth Allowance.
Under the new rules, job seekers applying for benefits who have not been previously employed will face a six-month waiting period of no income support before they are eligible for payments.
During this six months, they will still be required to meet job seeking activity requirements.
When the new rules come in, we will see more risk averse career behaviour from emerging creative practitioners. Graduates will jump into non-creative, non graduate-level jobs in order to cover bills in the short term, and/or go on immediately to further training and degrees with “safer” employment outcomes (despite potential fee hikes under a deregulated university system).
Graduates will be less likely to engage in “risky” high reward creative career moves such as setting up their own businesses, short term project-based work, or doing internships. Creative graduates of low SES backgrounds are likely to be hardest hit.
The potential repercussions for Australia are both economic and cultural. As fewer creative graduates embark on the risky journey to build creative careers and instead choose “safe” employment options, the digital and creative services industries (such as digital games and apps development, design and social media marketing) that are responsible for significant economic growth start to lose their creative skills base.
We will also start to lose emerging visual and performing artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers who would otherwise make important contributions to building a vibrant cultural life for Australia.
Even in the current policy climate, graduates can build successful creative careers. Students and universities can work together to achieve this. One key strategy is to start the transition to work process earlier, so that the post-university transition period is much shorter and easier.
By the time students graduate, they should have a portfolio of professional level creative work that demonstrates their capabilities, reasonably well developed industry networks, and a solid (but flexible!) career plan.
Well-conceived work experience and creative entrepreneurship programs in undergraduate courses are vital to positive outcomes.