Michelle Wright writes for Arts Professional - Are qualifications worth it?

Michelle Wright writes for Arts Professional - Are qualifications worth it?

Until the arts sector defines its expectations of the learning needed by employees, even aspirational and potentially career-enhancing training will be of limited value to either the individual or institution, says Michelle Wright.

 

The arts and charity sectors are facing both a talent and a retention crisis.

The People Count survey by Agenda Consulting found that charities on average have to recruit nearly 25% of their workforce again each year. This would indicate a significantly larger staff turnover than the UK average, which sits at 16-18%. In addition, 20% of staff leave the charity sector within their first year of employment. It will be interesting to see if Covid-19 will result in better retention when staff are facing global job insecurity, or whether redundancies and cost-cutting measures will make the issue worse.

There are many complexities around the issue of retention. In some cases, it can be linked to low pay, or non-existent support structures, or the stress of roles that lead people to leave earlier than might be expected. However, in some areas of the charity sector, such as fundraising, the crux of the problem might lie in the fact that we don’t have recognised development pathways for employees from entry level to leadership.

The need for development pathways

Most sectors have well-established development pathways, with clear accreditation routes via learning and formal examinations – for example, in accountancy, medicine or marketing. In areas such as fundraising there is no ‘obvious’ or ‘set’ entry pathway. There is also no defined form of skills or knowledge acquisition either required or mandatory to perform a role – all are optional. This can make defining a set of competencies or experience needed for fundraising roles almost impossible. Do we rely on experience or track record? How do we assess whether someone’s track record in another role makes them suitable to deliver in our environment?

In the arts sector, there are a plethora of excellent leadership options, such as Clore Leadership, yet sector-wide we have not embedded a culture where qualifications or leadership pathways are seen as critical for people securing roles. Indeed, through the essential focus on the equality, diversity, inclusion and accessibility area, we’ve maybe seen these requirements sit even further down the agenda. Yet the two things shouldn’t be at odds with each other – we should seek both a diverse and well-qualified sector – and there are surely routes to achieving both.

Are qualifications valued by employers?

Qualifying takes considerable investment of resources – a full-time Executive MBA in the UK can now cost some £60,000 at a leading institution. And, in addition to the financial and time considerations of seeking formal qualifications, we are seeing a culture where employees value achieving a good life balance ahead of study on top of their full-time job. But just as Covid-19 has thrown up in the air the concept of what we expect from jobs, the same is true of training. The priority must surely be to create flexible, accessible and cost-effective training pathways that can sit comfortably alongside full-time roles.

10 years ago, I finished an MBA. My motivation for being a student was mainly around confidence: I didn’t want to be a future CEO that couldn’t read a balance sheet. As I reflect on whether it was worth it, I can point to the amazing network it gave me and the transferable skills from learning about the commercial sector. But I question whether it has made me more employable, as it’s not recognised as a key leadership requirement in the charity sector like it is in the commercial sector. In fact, this sort of formal training might be met with suspicion by employers, who fear that once the qualification has been achieved the employee will jump immediately into another role.

As Dr Stan Lester says in his 2009 research, there is little understanding of whether going through a qualifying process which signs off professionals as competent to practice makes for more effective practice. We actually don’t know. And there are only a few studies internationally that would validate qualifications as an essential route. Similarly, there isn’t much research on the effectiveness of various components of a qualifying process – such as training courses or credentialing – where they exist and what works best.

Is the talent crisis about market failure?

The talent crisis might be caused by market failure. For example, if fundraisers receive better on-the-job training then the situation could be changed. But this would require better on-the-job trainers, who in turn would have had to have had better on-the-job training themselves. This requires a generational investment where part of the leadership role is to upskill others, which is not consistent practice.

Lester groups qualifying routes into four types:

  1. Sequential – these normally involve a full-time course followed by a period of supervised practice
  2. Parallel – part-time courses (often through day release) running concurrently with professional practice
  3. Integrated – going beyond the parallel route by integrating the theory being learned with day-to-day practice in a holistic way using reflective practice
  4. Experiential – learning through practice, supplemented when necessary by independent study (self-directed CPD) and short courses.

His study revealed a general trend towards greater diversity and flexibility in professional qualifying routes so that rather than relying on exams and years of experience, employers become more focussed on ability to practice and practical knowledge.

This more reflective practice route was developed by US philosopher Donald Schön and is geared to developing a deep understanding of a profession’s core principles. It usually consists of practice such as action learning, reflecting practice and critical action research, or in a nutshell, a process of continuous learning which is a part of many CPD programmes such as the requirement of 35 hours of CPD a year to maintain Chartered Institute of Marketing accreditation. This has been adopted by professions and overlaid across the top of professional qualifications or technocratic knowledge, for example, the syllabuses of the Institute of Fundraising Academy courses (Certificate, Diploma, Advanced Diploma) could be described as technocratic knowledge.

But if we are to use these reflective practices as markers, then we still urgently need to come to a consensus across the arts sector about what ‘ability to practice’ means. What are the relevant criteria and how many years’ experience and routes to training will we recognise?

So the question is not whether qualifications are worth it. Until we properly define our expectations about which training and learning for employees in the arts are desirable, aspirational and career-enhancing, training will be of limited value to either the individual or institution.