How my MA work placement helped me kick start my career in the Arts

Birkbeck alumna, Florencia Nannetti de Bella who studied MA History of Art at Birkbeck details how she started her career in the arts, from work placements to freelancing, to now starting a full-time role while working remotely.

Florencia Nannetti de Bella

Florencia Nannetti de Bella

On Monday 20 April, I started a new job as Community and Visitor Engagement Officer at the Museum of Cambridge. This has been, as you can imagine, a very unusual experience, given the circumstances. However, I could not be more thrilled about undertaking this post for many reasons, and I want to tell you about it.

First of all, let me tell you a bit more about how I got here. In 2017, I enrolled on a full-time History of Art MA course at Birkbeck. I had undertaken several courses in Arts Education and Visual Arts before, but this course at Birkbeck compelled me for a particular reason: it offered the opportunity to do a work placement at a cultural institution for 3 months.

At least in my case, I discovered quite quickly that breaking into the arts and culture sector could be difficult without enough experience. And although I had worked extensively as a freelance art facilitator in galleries and schools, it felt like I needed something more solid. So I figured that doing a work placement as part of my studies was a good place to start.

While enrolled on the Work Placement module, I had sessions with the tutor Sarah Thomas and the rest of the students to reflect on my practice. This is not something you usually get to do when you are working or doing a placement outside university, and it added so much to the experience. To have been able to discuss what you’re doing, the challenges you’re facing and the things you learn, added a whole new level of knowledge. In this case, it helped me become a reflective professional, and therefore improve my performance.

I had it very clear in my mind what I wanted to do for my placement: I wanted to be part of an Education Team. There were many more placements related to curation, but I was lucky to find one with the Creative Learning Team at Alexandra Palace.

Anna Gordon, from the Careers Advice Team, was brilliant at helping me with my application and interview. If you haven’t heard of the team, I would recommend you look them up and get in touch with them. In preparation for the work placement, Anna not only provided some great sessions on how to prepare your CV and cover letter, but she also provided 1 to 1 sessions. She carefully went through the application pack with me, and helped me tweak my CV accordingly. She gave me homework on this, for us to review together, and then helped me prepare for my interview.

One of the things that have impacted me the most from these sessions has been how she taught me how to approach an application. And most importantly, she helped me understand the skills that I have that I can offer to employers. This was so empowering and gave me more confidence to apply for the jobs that I really wanted.

I would certainly take this particular time to get in touch with the Birkbeck Careers Advice Team and work on your CV and cover letter. What better time to tackle it? Many new remote posts are appearing, so you might also want to consider that as an option.

It was a tricky time, when I was working, studying, and doing the placement at the same time. It was not easy, but was absolutely do-able. You will have to be extremely organised, planning ahead was key to navigating that period successfully.

The placement lasted three months, and it was great. My manager at Alexandra Palace, Isobel Aptaker, would take me to all her meetings, let me see how she went about doing certain tasks, answer my questions, and discuss challenges of the role, and of working at this venue in particular and others she had worked at. It was very useful, because I could get a real sense of how things are done, and the dynamics of the job. It also gave me a chance to really put to the test whether this was something I wanted as a career or not. A work placement can be a great way to discover if something you thought you liked, is actually what you want. Don’t regret it if you discover it is not.

Increasingly, I would have more and more tasks with a good degree of responsibility within the Ally Pally Learning team, which was good to test my skills and learn new ones. You don’t need to know it all when you undertake a placement, and it is good if your manager can give you challenging tasks that will help you grow, and build your knowledge. This is something you should discuss with the manager and your tutor. After all, you need to make it work for you.

After I graduated, I continued doing freelance work, and kept an eye open for other opportunities. My freelance experience has also been invaluable to expand my skills set and grow my professional network after the placement.

Last July, I got a very nice position as the Education and Training coordinator for a team of energy advisers, at an environmental charity. The experience from my work placement, which I spoke about during my interview, was key to getting this role. On this topic, I would recommend you keep a log of every new job or placement: it will help you keep track of everything you learn and do, so then it’s easier for you to give examples of your skills.

Starting a job in lockdown: why it has been good in many ways

In March this year, I came across this lovely post from the Museum of Cambridge, and just before the quarantine started, I managed to attend my interview. Consequently I was offered the role, which I accepted. The week right after, the country went into lockdown. However, Cambridge City Council, who is funding my position and the projects I will deliver, and the museum, were very keen for me to undertake the post remotely.

Albeit unusual, this has had a lot of positive benefits. Firstly, I could tackle my induction in a record time! I went through a lot of online training modules and documents that usually take a bit longer to go through, as you normally have to do other things around it if you are on site. In addition, since all of our cultural and engagement offer has to be re-arranged to fit the current circumstances, I have had to spend a good deal of time figuring the alternatives out. This is certainly testing and improving my planning skills and my creativity. I have to find alternatives, adapt activities, think of new ways to continue to build community through collections with all these new challenges we are facing. On the down side, I cannot familiarise myself with the collection and the building. However, this is bringing me closer to the wonderful team of volunteers and the Collections team, whom I rely upon to understand the museum’s dynamics.

Something that has always interested me is work within the arts and culture sector, and social issues, which in my opinion, have to involve engaging with local communities. One of the things that worried me the most about a lockdown, was that the voices of those communities, especially minorities, might go unheard again, and that we might lose the sense of connectedness between us. In this new job, I have the chance to try and stop that from happening.

It didn’t happen from one day to the other, but with patience, dedication, and the help of the very talented professionals I have mentioned, I was able to find the job I really wanted.

FURTHER INFORMATION
Birkbeck School of Arts
Birkbeck Futures

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Birkbeck, an energy you carry with you through your lifetime

Birkbeck alumna, Helen Kofler, writes about her work experience with the Birkbeck Futures team, after deciding she wanted to follow her passions and explore a career change.

As a Birkbeck masters graduate my most profound memory is of my graduation in 2015. I was sitting in the crowded auditorium and the familiar rumble of family members and friends cheering proudly for their loved ones, as they walked on stage to collect their hard-earned certificates, filled me with excitement and anticipation. I was sitting facing the stage on the right-hand side, so I saw the backs of students climbing the stage and only got to see their faces when they turned to face the audience.

One female student walked onto the stage and loud whistles and hands clapping in the sky charged throughout the audience. As I saw her turn to face me, her black gown was neatly folded around a baby carrier which she had strapped to her chest with her young toddler grinning out at the audience. For me this was everything Birkbeck stood for. The evening university which gives people the flexibility to study, whilst juggling the responsibilities of work, life and family.

So many of my contemporaries who have had children have had to turn to organisations such as ‘Pregnant, then Screwed’ when employers have discriminated against them for starting families, condemning their working lives. This woman on stage was looking that stereotype in the face and saying I am strong, I am powerful, I am intelligent and I am a mother. I was so proud to be a part of Birkbeck.

Having worked in retail in Marketing then as an Area Manager across London and the UK since 2010, I was exposed to the increasing pressure that has fallen on the UK retail market and decided it was time for me to leave the industry in search of new cheese. The only aspect of the job that I was sure I was committed to was working with, and developing, people. Through much soul searching and self-reflection I began to think about areas of my life which I enjoyed and where people were naturally drawn to me.

In the midst of this work on myself, my phone rang, “Helen, can I meet with you to help me prepare for a job interview?” “Yes!” I exclaimed. I hurriedly pored over the job spec and made a note of potential questions that could be asked. The next week, someone else called, “Helen, can we have a catch up, I am struggling at work and don’t know what my next move should be?” “Of course! Let’s go for a coffee.” This became a theme. I enjoyed so much meeting up with friends and colleagues and talking to them about career journeys but never considered it could be a full-time career itself.

Remembering my time at Birkbeck, I decided to contact the Birkbeck Futures team and ask for their advice. Even though I had graduated five years earlier, the door was flung open for me to discuss my situation with Lucy Crittenden, a Careers Consultant in the Futures team, where I was given bespoke advice and offered insight into creating a job out of my passion. An opportunity then arose for me to spend a week working alongside the team and seeing what they did on a day to day basis.

Excited and nervous, I made my way back to my old stomping ground ready for a week of learning. As I started the week, I have never come across such a generous and forward-thinking team. Spending a lot of my time with Jenna Davies, the Head of Careers, she took time out of her day to coach and mentor me. Jenna also shared her passion for entrepreneurship which I found truly inspiring and rubbed off on me giving me motivation to take side projects forward. Jenna organised a week full of interesting and fulfilling duties. These activities included research projects for Birkbeck’s inspiring Ability Programme, which is a series of lectures, workshops and networking opportunities dedicated to students and graduates with a disability, neurodivergence or long-term health conditions. I also attended training sessions and one to ones. Anna Gordon, Birkbeck Futures Career Coach helped me to reflect on my strengths and has given me a sense of purpose. Lucy Robinson, who is a Careers Consultant, gave me an insight into the Pioneer Programme, an initiative dedicated to encouraging students on their start up ideas. A week full of inspiration.

I have come away from my week at Birkbeck with that familiar sense of excitement and possibility that I was often filled with after having been to lectures and seminars as a student. Anna Gordon said that as a career changer it is important to have ‘resilience’ and I will carry this comment with me on my journey through career change. I am excited about the future and the opportunities ahead of me. I got the sense that there was a shared sense of community and purpose for each staff member that I came across. It was amazing to see as a spectator but also really infectious when surrounded by such energy.

At a lecture I attended towards the end of the week, Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Senior Lecturer in Management, said that Birkbeck is dedicated to inclusion and dedicated to giving people a second chance in life. The people I worked with during this week were testament to this and I am grateful to such an institution and these intrinsic values so imperative to our society today.

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Addressing the skills gap through partnerships between education and business

This post was contributed by Elena Georgalla, Work Readiness Programme Officer at Birkbeck. Elena’s article follows the recent roundtable discussion (hosted by the college’s Careers and Employability team) which explored cross-industry perspectives on the skills gap and social mobility

Universities and businesses alike suffer from the skills gap. Working closer together can have transformative potential.

 

Mind The Gap Logo by rrward on DeviantArt

Mind The Gap Logo by rrward on DeviantArt

The perceived growing gulf between the skills and abilities the workforce offers today and the skills and abilities businesses consider crucial to their success – the so-called skills gap – is old news to the UK job market.  Although its severity and extent remain highly contested, often distorted by politically-loaded debates on immigration and Tier 2 Visas, the overwhelming consensus among employers is that there is a deficit in graduates’ ability to communicate effectively and to solve problems creatively, to think critically, to work collaboratively and to adapt to changing priorities.

Further to these “soft skill” shortages, businesses report that job seekers also lack the technical “hard” skills, associated with specific jobs, including, most alarmingly, key digital skills. The latter has given rise to a wide range of public and private sector initiatives to inspire more young people to take up STEM subjects. As universities and businesses alike are affected by the skills gap, joining forces could have a transformative potential.

Universities and employability

Education has been quick to receive the blame. Despite the UK’s massive expansion in university education – 2015 saw a record number of undergraduates admitted to British universities – no parallel increase in skills has occurred as a result. Universities are at a watershed; their perceived value is reducing as they are faced with challenges that are intensified by burdensome tuition fees and a policy shift that favours apprenticeships for school-leavers to recalibrate the apparent skills malaise.

At a recent roundtable discussion organised by Birkbeck, University of London, chaired by Prof Philip Powell, Pro-Vice Master for Innovation, senior decision makers and university recruitment managers from some of the UK’s largest graduate employers questioned the role of university education as a sufficient indicator of a candidate’s potential. More often than not, they would favour a strong track record of work experience over academic achievement.

Are universities then in danger of becoming redundant if the norm of a university degree being the golden ticket to employment no longer stands? Is work experience a better indicator of ability than an undergraduate degree let alone a postgraduate one? Should more school-leavers consider alternative routes to employment, such as well-remunerated apprenticeships with clear progression paths, rather than three or four years of study followed by many years of paying off student debts and no correlated career outcomes?

It’s time for universities and employers to come together.

Addressing the skills gap

A growing number of universities have been responding to these questions by establishing direct partnerships with businesses in a variety of ways to take direct action towards addressing the skills gap and at the same time avoiding the bleak scenario of the overqualified unemployed graduate.

Indeed, the best universities for graduate employment have one thing in common: strong employer presence on campus. This, in tandem with academic excellence and playing to the strengths of each institution, appears to be a good recipe for success. This was certainly the overwhelming view of our roundtable participants who admitted that, empirically, the most successful candidates come from universities that excel at building partnerships with employers, increasing employer presence on campus, embedding employability in the overall student experience, and crucially, working with businesses to design academic curricula.

Apprenticeships have a key part to play in this model; there is large scope for universities to work with employers to establish high quality degree apprenticeships that allow students to gain a university qualification and invaluable (paid) work experience. Birkbeck, being London’s original evening only university, is currently exploring a day-apprenticeship/evening-study model. Overall, as employers demand more from their graduates with the modern job market increasingly requiring employees to be forward-thinking, problem-solving and entrepreneurial, it is clear that constructive dialogue, ground-breaking initiatives and a common, mutually-reinforcing approach between universities and business is the best solution.

There is an abundance of case studies demonstrating the importance and success rate of such university-business synergies. But to be truly successful, such partnerships need to go beyond the usual talent scouting and guidance on dealing with interviews and over-demanding assessment centres. They also need to focus on issues that can bring about genuine long-term change: social mobility, diversity and dealing with the chronic lack of women in technology. Such a focus is to the advantage of both sides because failing to tackle these issues will only compound the skills gap if fewer people are able to meet their full potential. Whatever the relationship that universities and businesses build, it ought to be reciprocal, mutually-reinforcing, sustainable and must speak to the needs of both sides.

Work Readiness: J.P. Morgan case study

At Birkbeck, we partnered with J.P. Morgan to launch the Work Readiness Programme, an initiative targeted specifically at students from underrepresented backgrounds, which aims to enhance social mobility and promote diversity in the job market, specifically in technology. Birkbeck prides itself on the diversity of our student body and on our reputation as an inclusive institution. J.P. Morgan has identified work readiness and social mobility as their top community engagement priorities. At the same time, Birkbeck has a campus in East London home to J.P. Morgan’s largest UK operation.

The reasons to join forces are evident. Since its launch, the programme has been very well-received among students and employers alike. On the one hand, employers see the value the programme adds to their efforts to become more inclusive and diversify their workforce; it speaks to real needs. On the other hand, our students have benefitted immensely from interacting with employers on campus and creating their own informal networks, whilst it has given our Career Service the opportunity to veer away from dull traditional career support limited to CV checks and “I’m not sure what I would like to do” conversations. In addition, we are soon to announce a partnership with TechCity UK which aspires to bridge the digital skills gap.

A collaborative approach

University education has a key role to play in driving the success of UK business. But in order to remain relevant, institutions must adapt. Universities are discovering the importance of increasing their collaboration with businesses beyond applied academic research and into preparing graduates for the world of work.

This, of course, does not absolve employers from their responsibility to provide training and opportunities for up-skilling. As emphasised, collaborative approaches should bear something for both sides. Most crucially, both sides should be willing to break the mould and innovate. Ideally, such partnerships should be focused around creating flagship initiatives, with a clear manifesto, well-defined aims and objectives, a robust structure and a progression plan.

Equally, there are many areas that still remain to be explored. Employer engagement in education provision (course development and delivery) for example, is still in its infancy and there is a lot more to be understood and to be implemented. Degree apprenticeships are another area with great potential to transform not only the university experience but also how people progress from education into work.

Finally, the true potential of employer-education partnerships does not solely lie in their ability to nurture super-graduates who are client-friendly, critical thinkers and also experts in Excel, Python and Matlab; it rests in the recognition of the potential to create real societal change and opportunities for everyone.

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