Articles - 9th October 2020

Universities are failing to close the skills gap, especially when it comes to freelancing

Words by Josh Mcloughlin
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Getting started as a freelancer isn’t easy. Self-employment requires getting to grips with a range of practical knowledge and skills that employed workers never have to worry about. From crunching the numbers for invoices, fee negotiations, and tax returns to the know-how needed for effective marketing, networking, project management, and client liaison, being your own boss requires wearing many more professional hats than the average employed worker.

Most freelancers learn the essential skills necessary for self-employment the hard way: through trial and error and making costly mistakes along the way. In my case, that meant being fined twice in one year for filing my taxes incorrectly.

Despite these challenges, the number of workers going freelance continues to climb – reaching a record high of 5 million in December 2019. As more and more new graduates, professionals and creatives set up shop on their own, isn’t it about time our universities started teaching basic freelance employability skills to prepare workers for self-employment?

A recent PolicyBee survey found that 80% of students achieving a 2:1 or above said they were interested in freelancing after graduation but did not feel equipped with the right tools, skills, or resources they need to succeed in self-employment. 81% said their universities did not offer enough advice about freelancing to students.

This amounts to an urgent, nationwide freelance skills gap. Increasing numbers of students looking to kick-on after graduation and start their own businesses are being held back by a lack of the basic skills necessary to go self-employed.

One freelance artist told me: ‘my course in Fine Art course didn’t prepare me at all for freelance work’.

‘Being a self-employed artist and maker requires skills like pricing work, sending invoices, preparing and promoting work for the commercial market, social media marketing, and juggling different projects, but university didn’t equip me with any of those.’

‘I studied Illustration five years ago’, another freelancer said. ‘Despite a module called “Professional practice” making up 20% of my grade, I can now reflect with hindsight this was incredibly outdated, irrelevant and based on a narrow and conservative conception of what it is to be a freelance illustrator.’

‘I graduated completely unprepared, with none of the tools or resources necessary to make my way as a freelance designer, although I have – in a very meandering and round-about way – got there on my own!’ they explained.

As well as a lack of practical knowledge offered by undergraduate courses, university careers services are failing providing the hands-on skills and training would-be freelancers need to hit the ground running when they graduate.

An antiquated mindset that sees full-time employment as the only viable postgraduate career trajectory still predominates among university administrators and career development professionals, meaning provision for freelance skills training is virtually non-existent.

University careers fairs are dominated by large corporations and businesses looking to fill graduate schemes, with little if any visibility given to the prospect of going self-employed after graduation. Accordingly, the resources, skills, and training offered by most university careers services are heavily geared towards landing an employed position and pursuing the traditional full-time career trajectory.

Learning how to write CVs, covering letters and job applications, and prepare for interviews, aptitude tests, and assessment days might be useful for those looking to enter employment, but they are next to useless for freelancers and the self-employed – especially those wanting to break into the creative industries.

Looking back on my own studies, university equipped me with the skills to socialise and talk to new people, write essays about Shakespeare and critical theory, deal with rogue landlords, and binge drink – but not much in the way of preparation for freelance work or self-employment.

The only compulsory careers ‘training’ on my course was a drab slideshow outlining the career trajectories for an English Literature graduate: in theory, every conceivable line of work; in practice, none without experience, nepotism, or both. Presentations by two alumni in comfortable, middle-of-the-road full-time professional jobs reinforced the idea that full-time employment was the only way.

An aspiring writer, I had no idea where to start. I worked a string of full-time jobs in the media, advertising, and publishing before realising that freelance writing suited me best. This meant I lost two or three years of honing my craft, networking and developing client relationships, and acquiring the administrative, financial, and business skills needed to provide a strong foundation for a self-employed career.

‘I think I would have benefitted from more workshops about money, fees and day rates’, the illustrator told me. ‘Most of my knowledge is based on talking to friends who work in the same industry. If universities could take the lead in fostering a transparent and supportive approach to creative freelance finance and realistic, fair fees, it would benefit everyone in the industry – and I know I would have entered it feeling much more confident.’

Several of the creatives I spoke to thought that university assignments, coursework, and briefs were not preparing students for the real-life freelance work. A graphic designer who has worked freelance and at several top London agencies told me: ‘There’s definitely a big gap between how you work at university and what is required by the industry, in more ways than one.’

‘At university deadlines are longer, the types of brief are different, research stages are longer, you have more autonomy, and there’s less scrutiny on craft and more on ideas’, he said.

‘And while a purely vocational and industry focused course would lack the critical and theoretical engagement that enrich ideas and thought processes, in terms of freelancing at least, art schools offer little-to-no practical advice on how you’d go it alone.’

The illustrator I spoke to agreed. ‘My course did not prepare me for the types of commercial design briefs I have gone on to work on.’

‘We were often given long several week deadlines for projects and encouraged to think conceptually about our outcomes. I fully support this ethos and think it is an important part of creative education. But in reality most of the well-paid projects I have worked on since graduating have been to tight (sometimes 24hr) deadlines and all the client wanted was a great-looking design.’

‘I think courses should reflect this balance of the real-life creative world’, they said.

What do graduates find most difficult about going freelance and what are the most important skills graduates lack? ‘My biggest struggles with becoming self-employed were definitely concerning what to charge for my work (which felt like a complete stab in the dark!), negotiating contracts and complicated legal terms’, said the illustrator.

The graphic designer told me: ‘Networking is all I’ve ever been told to do, or actually seen work. You want to be the first person someone thinks of when they think “I really need a designer, writer, photographer etc.”’ the graphic designer said.

‘Although, a visiting lecturer once told me he met one of his big clients at the sauna… so maybe we should all just go sit in the sauna.’

So, what is the solution to the freelance skills gap? University careers services should start by offering separate, dedicated provision for those looking to go freelance after they graduate. Just as they currently offer CV writing workshops and interview training for graduates entering the full-time job market, universities should be teaching students freelance skills.

A newly established Self-Employed Careers Service should start with the basics, inviting industry experts, guest speakers and experienced freelancers to offer workshops and seminars on essential self-employed skills like calculating a day rate; promoting, pitching and selling your services; networking and navigating tricky client relationships; producing invoices and chasing payments; managing your schedule to avoid burnout and make time for self-care; and, of course, the thing every freelance hates most: taxes.

Universities should welcome back alumni who have built successful freelance careers to offer advice, share the mistakes they made along the way, and answer questions from students looking to go down the same route.

Unless educators and policymakers act soon, the freelance skills gap will hold back entrepreneurship and limit the growth of the creative industries as more and more workers lack the skills to pursue self-employment. Until the freelance skills gap is closed, we’d better brush up on our sauna etiquette.

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