Junior staff are finding better contracts, senior staff are burning out: the arts are losing the war for talent

National Museum of Warsaw
National Museum of Warsaw

In 1997, consulting firm McKinsey & Company coined the term “the war for talent” to define increasing labour shortages that had significant potential to impact organisational performance.

The war for talent significantly impacted corporations at the time, creating a scarcity mindset and encouraging a wave of employee-focussed initiatives designed to attract and retain staff.

For the most part, the arts and cultural sector have been sheltered from the war for talent over past decades. Global growth in creative oriented higher education coupled with the “romance of being creative” has led to a steady stream of workers willing to enter the sector on low pay.

However, in 2022 things have changed.

Faced with labour shortages, arts and cultural organisations increasingly find it challenging to operate. In 2021, it was reported screen productions in Australia were being jeopardised due to lack of technical skills.

Now, summer festivals are struggling to find frontline workers, including security, stage crew, ticketing and transport.

It’s not just entry-level positions that remain empty.

After a decade of funding cuts and policy neglect, followed by the stresses induced by COVID-19, I am observing arts leaders leaving to find secure, better paid and sustainable work elsewhere.

In Australia’s increasingly tight labour market, the arts are finally facing a war for talent.

A culture of burnout

If we consider the role of the “arts manager”, it becomes easy to recognise why arts leaders are abandoning the industry.

Arts leaders do not just support the creation of art. They are marketers, customer service specialists, supply chain and logistics experts, grant writers, human resources managers and – increasingly – risk managers.

They are trying to bring back audiences post-COVID while juggling a contentious funding landscape that balances the need for revenue with audience, staff and artist expectations arts organisations do not partner with corporations that fail to align with organisational values.

Staff are increasingly burnt out. Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Staff are increasingly burnt out. Annie Spratt/Unsplash

I am increasingly seeing young people leaving arts jobs for opportunities that recognise their skills and provide secure, better paid work. Art workers are highly valuable in today’s economy where creativity and innovation are seen as keys to success.

This lack of younger workers increases the workloads of senior staff, causing them to be burnt out and leave the sector, too.

Staff shortages jeopardise the sector’s ability to get back on its feet after the brutal impact of COVID-19. Those that remain in our arts companies are exhausted, left trying to rebuild programs and audiences with fewer resources.

While “quiet quitting” gets media airtime, others in the sector are asking arts workers to embrace the mantra of “less is necessary”.

Individuals need to take action to address their wellbeing. Still, it is also necessary to consider the systems and structures that underpin our arts organisations and how they impact workers.

Read more: Quiet quitting: why doing less at work could be good for you – and your employer

Structural issues

One way to address the war for talent is to increase the labour supply.

Higher education providers who develop creative talent are lobbying for more resources to expand programs and are pushing for changes to the Job Ready graduate scheme that imposes higher costs on arts and humanities graduates.

The latest Graduate Outcome Survey shows that the employment outcomes of creative arts and arts and humanities graduates have increased over 20% since 2019. The high rates of graduate employability aligns with Australia’s historically low unemployment rate, but also demonstrates the value creative skills now hold in the broader economy.

Read more: The inequity of Job-ready Graduates for students must be brought to a quick end. Here's how

What these positive statistics do not tell us, however, is the working conditions of those employed.

The arts are the original gig economy. Of the over 80% of arts and humanities graduates employed six months after graduation, how many earn a living wage? How many work in the arts? How many recent creative arts graduates are juggling multiple short-term contracts simultaneously to build skills, grow networks and cope with cost of living increases?

As Australia’s labour market tightens, arts workers are realising they can take their skills to better paid jobs with secure contracts, in fields such as health, technology and management consulting.

Arts workers are finding their skills are in demand in other industries. Jason Goodman/Unsplash
Arts workers are finding their skills are in demand in other industries. Jason Goodman/Unsplash

Unless arts organisations respond by providing similar security and career paths, the departure of talented workers will only continue.

This loss of staff will not only impact the ability of organisations to operate today, but will also influence the make-up of arts organisations in the future.

When only those who can afford to work under precarious conditions remain, the ability of the sector to attract and retain leaders from diverse communities decreases.

Decent work

Arts leaders eagerly await the launch of a new National Cultural Policy, hoping for significant change in how the arts are valued.

Yet arts organisations need to also get their own house in order.

Sustainable arts careers mean decent work. This means structural changes in how arts workers are employed, a shift away from the reliance on volunteers and incorrect appointment of unpaid interns, low-wage casual or fixed-term roles to more secure and fairly paid employment.

Many in the sector are championing change. The National Association for the Visual Arts is campaigning to recognise artists as workers, highlighting the need for an award to support this group that often falls under the industrial relations radar. The music sector has made similar calls for minimum wages for artists, yet face critics.

The pandemic showed us how important the arts are to our lives. For the arts to continue to play a vital role in our national identity and represent our diverse communities, the sector must be funded appropriately.

It is also essential organisations create safe, secure and viable jobs for arts workers.

If the industry can only exist by systematically exploiting workers, then the war for talent will be lost.

Read more: Tony Burke's double ministry of arts and industrial relations could be just what the arts sector needs

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Kim Goodwin, The University of Melbourne.

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Kim Goodwin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.