Samuel Ali shares the experiences and challenges of working in the heritage sector

Positive-action traineeships are intended to make the heritage and cultural sector more representative, yet, in the absence of employment rights, regular formal training and sufficient oversight, trainees are exposed to the risk of being used as low cost staff cover by their hosts. Trainees with mental health difficulties are particularly vulnerable, and there is a risk of disguised employment which undermines some of the purpose of traineeship schemes that have been created to empower individuals from under-represented and disadvantaged social groups into the sector and, ultimately, to increase access to mid-level and senior positions.

Paid traineeship schemes in the heritage sector, combining training with work experience, “make museum careers more accessible to people who cannot afford to pay for training or to volunteer extensively and whose background and family circumstances may have made it hard for them pursue a museum career,” according to the Museum Association (MA). In 1998, the MA pioneered the Diversify scheme, offering post-graduate study bursaries with placements in museums for candidates identifying as being from a Black, Asian or other Minority-Ethnic (BAME) background.

Over its over thirteen-year run, the Diversify traineeship scheme widened to include low-income and disabled individuals, with 110 individuals, in total, participating. The ongoing necessity of such schemes at all levels of the sector was highlighted in a 2016-17 diversity report by the Arts Council England (ACE), which included information on its twenty-one ‘Major Partner Museums’, albeit, with data on 36% of the workforce being unavailable. The results found that 4% of the responding workforce identify as being of black or of other minority ethnic origin (BME), whilst they make up 16% of the working age population in England and 30% in London. People who identify themselves as having work-limiting disability also made up 4% of the responding workforce, whilst making up 20% of the working age population nationally. On the boards of these organisations, BME and disability identifying people made up only 2% and 4% of the workforce, respectively. Women, who make up a majority of the responding workforce as a whole, made up only 38% of board members.

New traineeships that involve on-the-job training have been developed to address the persistent inclusivity problem across the sector. Whilst evidence suggests the beneficial impact of traineeship schemes in widening representation in the sector, more data collection has been called for. More traineeships geared towards management-level roles has been proposed as likely to have a bigger impact on representation and to increase access beyond roles such as operations/front-of-house, where 83% of employees earned less than the UK average wage, in 2015.

Lack of oversight of training provided by placement hosts, however, especially, in the case of on-the-job training, can leave trainees lacking skills to progress in the sector. I recently graduated from a one-year entry-level positive-action traineeship scheme where, instead of completing formal academic studies, I undertook on-the-job training towards attaining a heritage diploma. During my placement with my host, a council-funded local museum, I worked independently, mostly, as well as providing cover for front-of-house staff and volunteers. Whilst I had opportunities to work on some exhibition projects with a number of supportive staff and loosely followed a mutually agreed learning plan, I received very little formal training from my host and often felt isolated and that I was being utilised as an “extra pair of hands” to cover staff and volunteer shortages for the volunteer-dependant front-of-house team. I also struggled to access the same workplace resources as staff, at times.

Other trainees on the scheme, some I know to have subsequently secured jobs in the sector, expressed their initial difficulties in understanding the scope of their role when we gathered for trainee skills days organised by the placement provider. My mental health difficulties and difficulties interacting with my line manager made raising concerns and seeking support difficult. As a non-employee in the workplace, I was not provided ready access to employee support services, such as a HR department or the staff Intranet, where staff groups, such as the BAME network, and other services and benefits were advertised.

Our placement provider was an arts and education charity which had received Heritage Lottery Funding (HLF) to fund the traineeship scheme with host partners across the country. The organisation operated with a team of approximately six or seven, with some key individuals on part-time contracts, overseeing a national scheme involving around seventeen trainees, whilst concurrently working on other major multi-organisational projects. All the staff I interacted with from the charity demonstrated to me genuine passion for making the sector more socially representative. However, inevitably, the placement provider was stretched in its staff resources and, I believe, often, could not provide meaningful oversight for its trainees.

The trainee role is inherently vulnerable due to non-employee legal status and functional flexibility. As a non-employee, trainees are not automatically entitled to the rights that staff with equivalent responsibilities may benefit from – even if their role has many of the hallmarks of employment. Furthermore, the trainee role specification, designed to be flexible and personalised, may become overly shaped by pressing organisational needs, such as staff and volunteer shortages. For a trainee to question any aspect of the experience, whilst being in receipt of a tax-free grant to work and train in an oversubscribed sector, may feel too much like “biting the hand that feeds.” The placement provider, dependent on host institution partnership and host funding contributions, to support the scheme, may lack the resources to be a critical assessor of host training quality.

Evidence, including the anecdotal evidence of my trainee graduate peers, suggests that traineeship schemes do enable individuals to secure jobs in the sector, though more comprehensive data collection is required to assess the full and long-term impact. Greater oversight is needed to ensure that training and opportunities provided meaningfully develop skills and knowledge. This must start with ensuring that all participants to the scheme have sufficient resources to fulfil their formal training and well-being responsibilities to trainees. At the same time, the trainee role, as far as possible, must be equalised with equivalent employee status to ensure that trainees have ready access to all workplace resources and support.

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Samuel Ali has worked in various roles in the heritage sector and writes about the sector, alongside issues of mental health, history and social justice. Contact on Twitter @museumpoetry

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