I benefitted greatly from my place on a graduate traineeship. But did I need a degree to do it, and is right that we continue to ask for them as requirements for entry-routes into the sector?
Like so many people, my path into museums wasn’t an easy one. I didn’t really know what to do after I graduated in 2011 with an MA in Classics. Exploring various options, I started volunteering in my local museum (Guildford) and soon fell in love with it. This is the industry for me, I thought. Now just to get a job in it.
Fast-forward two and a half years, and I was still in the same place – working for money in a supermarket, while giving up what free time I had to volunteer. The frustration and desperation were real, and I felt like packing in my dream for good. But then it happened – I got my first heritage-y job, back in 2014. Receiving that offer was one of the happiest moments of my life.
I had won a place on a paid 15-month Traineeship, funded by the HLF. My placement was at Worcester Cathedral Library, but there were six other trainees based at various museums and archives across Worcestershire. The posts were graduate traineeships. Each had the essential requirement of an undergraduate degree. Each also asked for previous experience in the heritage sector as a desirable requirement.
The idea behind the traineeship, part of the wider HLF Skills for the Future programme, was to increase the range and quality of work-based training in the sector, meet identified skills-gaps, share good practice, and increase workforce diversity. Alongside paid practical work experience, we also studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Heritage Management, and were exposed to significant training and professional development opportunities.
The main aspects of my day-to-day role in the Cathedral Library were conducting tours, setting up temporary exhibitions, answering enquiries, facilitating research visits, running social media and managing volunteers. As an unplanned surprise, I also assisted with a decant of the library’s holdings, initiated by urgent ceiling repair work.
It was pretty much everything that could be expected of a curatorial or collections assistant role, and was excellent first-hand experience. The training opportunities were ample too, with courses on fundraising, the National Curriculum, project management, and specific areas of conservation. We also held swap-shops across each of the placements, as well as away days. Beyond that, the study element was also interesting, although I’m not convinced how useful the theoretical side of it has been.
The best thing about it all was the support network though. My supervisor – the Cathedral Librarian – was fantastic. So were the rest of the Cathedral community, the traineeship coordinator and the other placements’ supervisors. But the company of the other traineeships themselves was what made the opportunity priceless.
At the end of those 15 months, it still wasn’t a case of walking into a job. I returned to Guildford as a paid Research Assistant on a 12-month contract. A mixture of subsequent collections and documentation roles followed. But it wasn’t until I took my current position, in January 2019, as a Curator of Aircraft in a national museum, that I felt truly emerged, with my first permanent job and introduction to line-management.
It is the feeling of being settled and secure that makes now a good time to reflect on my past and where I’ve come from. I have learnt a lot over the last five years. One of the things I’ve learnt is that my background – white, and comfortably middle class – is very privileged. This doesn’t mean that I have not had to work hard. But it does mean that I have had it a lot easier than some. And I have always had something of a financial safety-net by means of my family.
This safety net meant that I could go to university without worrying about student debt. It meant I could live at home rent-free while saving up for my MA. And it meant that I could commit to significant amounts of voluntary work before I got my first paid job in the sector.
If a degree was an essential requirement for the graduate traineeship at Worcester, it’s only fair to ask how much use I made in the role of my university credentials. The answer is very little. That was as true then for my traineeship as it is now for role as a Curator in a national museum. Some things I learnt at university have been useful – an improved sense of critical and analytical thought, and source citation conventions – but these are things which don’t have to be necessary taught in academia exclusively.
My experience of working in the sector to date is that what really determines how effective an individual is are the ‘softer’ skills. These are things like communication, teamwork, negotiation, diplomacy, leadership, problem solving and organisation. Training courses might exist for each of these, but most of us pick and up and develop these skills in the course of our daily lives or in any work place.
If these ‘softer’ skills can be learnt from experience, I have no answer as to where innate values come from. Values are what distinguish an effective and efficient museum professional from ones who are inspirationally fantastic. Integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, ability to engage, affability, humour, story-telling and belief in the arts as a force for good in society – these are the values that the best people in the sector live and breathe every day.
If skills and values are what best determine a candidate’s performance in the workplace, why not recruit along these lines? This question can be asked again for recruitment into traineeships. This is especially true when a traineeship’s stated aims are to increase sector workforce diversity give a leg-up to those struggling to break into a notoriously impenetrable sector.
I urge any of you in recruitment positions to carefully consider what attributes are *actually* necessary for a person to successfully fulfil a role, instead of slapping on a degree requirement as a lazy short-hand. Candidates should be free to evidence how they meet these attributes from any source, not merely the traditional routes of university education and prior voluntary experience in the sector.
To be clear, none of this should be about disqualifying graduates from traineeships, ignoring the sacrifices that so many people make to go to university, or undermining the value of higher education. Instead, it’s about trying to diversify entry routes into the sector and opening doors rather than closing them.
I greatly benefitted from my traineeship. But there may have been candidates who could have benefitted from it more, and performed better in the course of their duties, than I did. It’s not fair that my previous experience and two expensive degrees – the products of my privilege – allowed me to profit at their expense.
It’s high time we opened the gates to the sector and called time on traineeships designed exclusively for graduates.