Screen Skills, Shortages and Silicon Spa

Published: Posted on

Dr James Davies and Dr Matt Lyons discuss how we can solve the creative skills shortage in the West Midlands.

This blog and research is part of a project for the Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre.

The phenomenon of skills shortages in the creative industries is well-known in the academic literature and policy debates.

The lack of appropriately skilled workers is stymieing the growth of creative clusters in regions already lagging behind London and the South East. Our research seeks to dig a bit deeper into the regional nature of creative industries’ skills ecosystems, to identify what policy interventions could close the gap.


The first stage of our research compared two creative clusters:

  1. The Film & TV focused cluster in the Cardiff Capital Region (CCR):

Large-scale productions, such as Netflix’s Sex Education and the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials have been filmed in studios and on location across Wales, with the majority of production based around Cardiff.

  1. The Video Games focused on a cluster in the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA):

Home to world-renowned videogames franchises including Forza Horizon, Fable, and the DiRT and official F1 games, are developed by teams based in and around the Warwickshire town of Leamington Spa, known colloquially as Silicon Spa.

These two creative clusters are quite different in their economic contexts and in their sub-sectors. Film, television and video game production share characteristics and technologies, but there are important distinctions, too. Importantly they also differ in their institutional landscapes, with different policy levers available in the CCR (the Capital city in a devolved nation) compared to the West Midlands. Our research uses interviews with stakeholders across the range of industry, education, training providers and local government, to better understand what these differences mean for the skills ecosystem in each region, and what lessons can be learned to better inform policy.

In 2023, the UK Government announced a Deeper Devolution deal for the West Midlands, allocating more funds and autonomy to address priority areas for Levelling up, presenting a great opportunity for the region to consider what greater devolution could mean for the creative sector when considering the example set in the CCR. While we await the publication of the full report by the Creative Industries PEC, likely to be in the summer of 2023, this blog sets out a summary of our findings and their implications for policy:

Summary of Findings
  • It’s not that workers aren’t skilled, more that there aren’t workers with the right skills to make them employable: better characterised as a mismatch rather than a shortage.
  • Where industry and education collaboration has occurred, it has been very successful in developing effective and specific courses. There is a need to foster that collaboration at a more general level within regions to focus the contribution universities and Further Education (FE) colleges can make to their creative industries.
  • The development of more modular, flexible courses would also cater for the lack of talent in more senior positions but may require agility beyond Higher Education institutions (HEIs) and be better served by colleges or independent training providers.
  • Different levels of government operated in the two regions of focus, and resulted in markedly different levels of interaction with their regional sub-sectors.
  • In the West Midlands, we find an undervaluing of the creative industries in policy and an apparent reticence in the video games industry to appear visible and accessible.
  • Where there is strong regional leadership, we can see closer alignment between industry needs and policy provision. Creative Wales is an example of what a network that connects industry, education and government could look like.
  • We find that there are different constraints on creative sectors and geographies when seeking talent, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic. These nuances are not widely understood and require tailored policy responses.
  • A recognition of fragility is essential to mitigate against shocks, whether that be further economic uncertainty, the pandemic, inward investment leaving (especially in TV), or political, in the form of the impact of Brexit, and allocation of Levelling up funding. Creative industries are not inevitable nor indefatigable.
Recommendation: Commission surveys to better understand regional skills gaps and mismatches.

 Our understanding of regional skills issues for creative industries needs to go beyond a simple consideration of demand exceeding supply and acknowledge that there is a proliferation of talent, particularly at the entry-level, that is mismatched with the industry’s needs and expectations. Regional-level surveys of the screen sector workforce, renewed annually, can help to provide a picture of the workforce composition that better reflects the regional dynamics of the labour market, and shifting needs over time.

Recommendation:  Design flexible, modular courses with foundational input from the industry to contribute to solving technical skills gaps.

Better industry engagement, in both the designing and tailoring of creative industries courses to the relevant needs of the sub-sectors from year to year, offers greater agility than is possible with traditional HE courses. Hybridised courses, that split classroom time with industry experience, or more small-scale modular courses that cater to skills requirements to aid with ‘stepping up’ to more senior positions, would benefit from industry engagement being foundational in their creation, resulting in courses that best serve the creative industries’ needs, and will help to clarify the role of the university in supporting regional creative clusters.

Recommendation: Build and support networks that foster collaboration between education providers and industry.

Effective and continuous university and industry links are hugely valuable to the creative sectors in both regions. More structure enabling these collaborations would improve training at Higher Education (HE) level, and lower the risk associated with the industry in employing graduates. Continuity above also extends to appointing the right people and then keeping them there for the longer-term strategy, a combination of these approaches would go some distance to limit the amount of ‘churn’ within the institutions that have a remit for CI ecosystems, and allow more strategic and sustained support.

Recommendation: Devolve Creative Leadership to the functional economic area of the creative cluster.

 Where there is strong regional leadership, we can see closer alignment between industry needs and policy provision. Devolving decision-making to regional and local government levels across regions such as the West Midlands would enable continuity of funding and personnel, and enhance legitimacy and structure. We call for the establishment of independent creative agencies for any region that has the capacity and desire to grow its creative cluster. Well-funded agencies with sector champions will help foster collaboration between industry, policy and education, and benefit from being more securely funded, permitting longer-term planning, the development of relationships and continuity – all areas acknowledged to be challenges for the sector.

Recommendation: Introduce technical visas for key creative sectors.

The death of appropriately skilled workers in some sub-sectors and roles is likely too specific and dynamic for regional education providers to be able to respond to alone. Both sub-sectors have been heavily impacted by recent shocks, with TV facing an exodus of more senior personnel over the pandemic, and video game global talent pipelines being impacted heavily by Brexit. As such, the most efficient route to addressing these shortages would be to import more workers and offer talent visas to facilitate their swift relocation and integration.

Recommendation: To boost resilience in the sector recognising fragility is a feature.

A recognition of fragility is essential to mitigate against shocks (further economic/pandemic) uncertainty, inward investment leaving (especially in TV), Political (Brexit and allocation of Levelling up funding). Creative Industries are not inevitable or indefatigable.

Building Bridges

In their major 2022 Skills Review, the British Film Institute (BFI) recommend the building of stronger bridges into industry from education, and from outside the production sector. Industry working more collaboratively to set standards and frameworks for apprenticeships and technical education, forming better links with educators and training bodies at the local level, and engaging more with education to inform curriculum development is a route to addressing issues relating to the supply and demand of a region’s creative sector specifically.

We support the findings of the BFI in this regard and hope that our research has provided further evidence for an increased regionally specified policy approach to the UK’s creative clusters, and attendant devolution of decision-making powers away from Westminster, allowing the West Midlands to take control of their identity and destiny. With the announcement of the Deeper Devolution Deal allocating not only a windfall of £1.5bn of investment into the region but also the devolution of an unparalleled amount of control over spending in key areas, this is a prime opportunity for the West Midlands to recognise the potential of its creative sector. Developments in Digbeth around TV production, including the recent opening of Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight’s Digbeth Loc Studios demonstrate that the creative industries are a major part of the West Midlands’ future, it is vital to ensure the world leading creative cluster already on its doorstep, in the form of Silicon Spa are not overlooked, but rather prioritised and supported.

This blog was written by Dr James Davies, and Dr Matt Lyons, Research Fellows,  City-REDI / WMREDI, University of Birmingham.

The views expressed in this post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WMREDI or the University of Birmingham.

Sign up for our mailing list

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *