BBC to train broadcast engineers to meet critical shortfall

broadcast engineer in studio The job of a broadcast engineer is critical to the BBC's future

In ten years' time, the BBC would struggle to deliver something as technically complex as the London Olympics - that's unless it addresses a critical skills shortage in broadcast engineering now.

It's a stark assessment by John Linwood, chief technology officer, who this week announces an apprenticeship scheme that will train up a new generation of engineers for the UK media industry's future.

Start Quote

John Linwood

It's in the BBC's interests to have a healthy broadcast industry in the UK”

End Quote John Linwood Chief Technology Officer

The BBC technology apprenticeship scheme, the first of its kind since 1994, will recruit the first intake of 20 apprentices in September for the three-year training programme that will get them a university degree but none of the associated debt. Some of the apprentices will be offered BBC jobs after they graduate.

The scheme - the first ever to lead to an externally recognised honours degree - will involve a mixture of classroom study, delivered by institutions such as the Universities of Salford and Birmingham City, and on-the-job training with the BBC and its partners. The likes of Channel 4, ITV, Red Bee Media and Arqiva have come on board for the scheme.

Ageing workforce

Linwood tells Ariel that the BBC has a long tradition of training up broadcast engineers - but it has recently identified a gap that could affect programme making and outside broadcasts in the years to come.

It was apparent at the Olympics, he says, that many of the broadcaster's engineers are now in their fifties.

'We have an ageing workforce of very skilled people and we're starting to get to the point where a number of them are going to start retiring in the next few years,' the Technology leader warns.

'It isn't just the BBC which has this problem; all broadcasters have this problem today.'

Passion

The BBC is mainly looking for school leavers for the apprenticeship scheme, but there is no official age ceiling. Current staff will be able to apply to the programme, with the application process open from Thursday morning.

Linwood wants to find people who are passionate about working in the broadcast industry, not just those who see it as a stepping stone to another job.

'We don't want to set the barrier too high in terms of academic achievement. We don't want to exclude people just because they didn't do sciences, but we want passion,' he says.

The programme - partly devised by the BBC Academy in partnership with Creative Skillset - is expected to be extraordinarily competitive.

An investment

In total, 100 apprentices will be trained over eight years to meet growing industry demand.

Linwood will not reveal the cost of the scheme, which will pay the apprentices a basic wage, only that the BBC will share that cost with the government's Employer Ownership Skills pilot. Partner broadcasters will pick up some of the expense, when the trainees spend time with them.

But why should the BBC shoulder most of the burden?

Linwood uses the public-service argument. 'We are publicly funded and this is a way of giving back to the wider broadcast community. The BBC also benefits from it. It's in the BBC's interests to have a healthy broadcast industry in the UK.'

studio equipment Maintaining studio equipment requires people with advanced technical skills

He argues that many engineers trained by the BBC will return to the broadcaster over the course of their careers, whether as staff, freelancers or casual workers. It was the case with the Olympics, he points out.

High-tech billionaires

On the subject of women, who are traditionally underrepresented in engineering, Linwood says there will be no quota to recruit a certain number for the new apprenticeship scheme. However, he points to the BBC's ongoing programme to raise the profile of women in engineering.

The technology chief's hope is that the scheme will encourage more young people to consider broadcast engineering as an exciting career, as exciting as working for Google or Facebook. The new media giants have lured many talented graduates and young people away with the promise of 'sexy' jobs, he says, which partly explains the impending shortfall.

'Most 20-year-olds think they are going to be billionaires by the time they are 23 and they want to go and invent the next generation of Facebook,' Linwood admits.

This scheme will not turn its graduates into millionaires, but it will give a lucky group of talented young people a shot at well-paid, steady work - and that's no small thing in today's economy.

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