Freelance, happy and vital to the UK economy - creative graduates in 21st Century

Graduates of creative courses are well placed to ride out the recession a new study has revealed. Called Creative Graduates Creative Futures, the study is the largest ever survey of creative graduates’ career paths and offers an alternative career model for the 21st century workforce.

Led by University of the Arts London and conducted by the Institute for Employment Studies, the research shows how creative graduates’ ingenuity and resourcefulness, and their valuing of creativity over wealth makes them well equipped to survive tough economic times. With 78% of those surveyed working in the creative industries, which accounts for 6.4% of the UK economy (NESTA, 2009), the survey also highlights the importance of highly qualified creative graduates to both the sector and the national economy.

Many creative graduates sustain a living through multiple income streams, simultaneously doing freelance, part time, self employed and portfolio work, often combined with further study to develop their skills. This flexible approach is essential for capitalising on the rapidly changing opportunities of the creative industries, and as more workers across all industries face an uncertain employment market, could become an increasingly popular way of working.

Three quarters of working creative graduates are satisfied with their jobs, compared to a national average of just 44% (SHL Global, 2009), this is in spite of comparatively low pay – one half of respondents earn £20,000 or less. As ‘a job for life’ becomes a thing of the past, creative graduates’ emphasis on personal fulfilment above financial reward, teamed with their entrepreneurial spirit, could be a new mantra for the modern workplace.

Key findings of the survey:

• Three out of four respondents had worked in the creative industries since qualifying and a similar proportion were working in creative occupations at time of the survey
• Majority of graduates were working across the design and media industries and the most common employment sector was design (28% of respondents)
• 48% of graduates were engaged in multiple activities or portfolio working, typically combining paid employment with self employment, working voluntarily, or developing their creative practice
• 79% of graduates in work were working part-time in at least one of their jobs
• 45% of graduates had worked on a freelance basis and around one quarter had started a business during their early careers
• 42% of respondents had undertaken voluntary work since graduating
• Less than one in 20 creative graduates were unemployed at time of the survey
• Graduates were keen to develop their skills and enhance job prospects - 72% had undertaken further study or training
• One third of respondents had experience of teaching, generally in the arts
• Creative graduates value their creative education, rating most course activities as fairly or very useful

The ‘Creative Graduates Creative Futures’ study was launched in 2008 by a partnership of 26 UK higher education institutions and the Council for Higher Education in Art and Design (CHEAD). The project is based at and supported by the University of the Arts London, working with staff at the Institute for Employment Studies who undertook the research.

Between September and December 2008, more than 3,500 graduates responded to a survey about their working lives up to six years after qualifying from their first degrees, making it the largest detailed study of its kind. A second stage of qualitative research was conducted in September 2009 examining graduates’ career paths in more depth and their experiences of work in the recession. These results will be published in spring 2010.

Linda Ball, Project Director, University of the Arts London says ‘New creative endeavour is the life-blood of the creative industries sector and our graduates are clearly resourceful and well-equipped, as they navigate their way through the complexities of creative work, underpinned by their desire for new learning and to continue with their creative practice.

These career models are extraordinary and highly relevant to changes occurring in the modern workplace as the economy emerges from recession. It is anticipated that graduates in all subjects will face high rates of unemployment, and there are clearly some important challenges for universities, employers and other agencies supporting graduates into a more uncertain future.’.

Emma Pollard, Project Manager, Institute for Employment Studies says ‘Creative graduates are career-focused and work towards realising their goals. They are flexible and adaptable graduates who combine activities to balance a stable source of income with the ability to be creative in their work within and outside of the creative industries, and in so doing achieve high levels of work satisfaction.

This research presents a picture of success which can be overlooked by traditional surveys of graduates that tend to emphasise full-time employment, focus on traditional graduate occupations, and stress salary levels. These measures are less appropriate to creative graduates who value new learning, work-life balance, and the pursuit of creative practice above earnings.’

Elizabeth Rouse, Pro-Rector University of the Arts London and Chair of the Project Steering Group says: ‘There is growing recognition of the importance of creativity, the creative industries and the linkages beyond to the wider economy. We in art and design education need to understand more about graduates’ contribution to the success of the UK's creative economy, how career patterns are changing and what skills and attributes graduates need to be successful.’

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20 Jan 2010