This article was first published in Cultured North East in May 2023
It’s boom time for live events but there’s a lack of people to run them. Industry expert Susan French tells David Whetstone how Skills Bootcamps can help to plug the gap
Opportunity knocks for adults wanting to work in live events, back with a boom after the pandemic but facing a shortage of qualified staff.
That’s according to Susan French who has had a successful career in the industry and set up her own company 12 months ago.
The timing might seem daring but she explains: “When the pandemic hit, I thought instead of focusing on the negatives – and we did get torn apart – we need to be positive.
“Why not build the business back stronger and more diverse than it’s ever been?
“Let’s look at training. Let’s look at what the industry really needs rather than what we’ve been told it needs.
“Let’s make sure everyone has the skills needed to access this industry and the same opportunities I had. I know I’ve been incredibly lucky.”
In her Tynemouth office, Susan remembers being “a kid from Shotton Colliery who was told she wasn’t good enough”.
But given a chance, she seized it and now knows the events industry inside out. She is extremely well connected.
When North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA) secured Government funding to establish Skills Bootcamps, Susan French Events was accepted as a provider in the culture and events category.
The North East is renowned in this field with gigs and festivals, food fairs and sporting events such as the Great North Run boosting regional coffers.
Recognising this, NTCA has identified the culture and creative sector as a key element of the future economy of North of Tyne (Northumberland, North Tyneside and Newcastle).
It is investing millions in events, tourism and sector skills, and has funded new culture and creative zones in Berwick, Newcastle and North Shields.
Skills Bootcamps are another sign of its commitment.
The Department for Education describes them as free, flexible courses of up to 16 weeks and with an interview with a potential employer on completion.
Aimed at people aged 19 and over, they are designed to address skills gaps across industry while creating opportunities for job-seekers.
Councillor Karen Kilgour, NTCA cabinet member for education, inclusion and skills, says: “Our skills bootcamps are designed to provide learners with the skills that employers say they want and need.
“So not only do we work with training providers who are well tuned in to the industries they represent, but we also look at what’s happening within the region more broadly and how we can respond to that by upskilling local people.”
Susan’s experience of overcoming obstacles make her the perfect provider.
“Growing up in County Durham, I was always told I wasn’t clever enough,” she recalls.
“I wasn’t particularly academic but I’ve come to realise I was bored. I like to solve problems and work at a million miles an hour. That’s the way I am.
“But it didn’t fit in with what school was about. I was shy and never the person chosen to do anything.”
At Peterlee College she got lucky, walking out of a lesson about caring for the elderly and being ushered by a passing lecturer into one about music.
It changed her life.
“It’s how I fell into this industry. At that point I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what the journey would be but I knew this was something I wanted to be around.”
Laughing, she confesses she joined bands without knowing how to play an instrument.
But when she began helping at a small venue she learned there was more to music than performing. Soon she was talking to tour managers and booking bands.
“I realised how exciting this industry could be but it had never even been on my radar. Then suddenly you’re getting paid to do something you love.”
Even before the pandemic, she had been considering how to help others access an industry where opportunities abound in areas like stewarding, stage building, sound, wardrobe and catering.
Setting up Susan French Events was a step in that direction and applying to be a Skills Bootcamp provider was another.
With the lifting of lockdown came a keen appetite for live events but many experienced hands had switched careers or retired.
There were “huge shortages” of qualified personnel, says Susan, and those who had trained online lacked hands-on experience.
“You need to be on site, touching cables and understanding how things work.”
The post-pandemic hangover, it seems, is yet to wear off.
“When we see the big production call sheets come in, it’s clear people are looking all over for the right staff to put in place,” says Susan.
That’s good news for some, including the recent skills bootcamp graduates alongside her.
Jessica Robinson, aged 30 and from County Durham, says she was always keen to get into music but didn’t know how.
“I was working in a café before I started doing this but when I lost my job I thought I really wanted to do something I loved.
“I contacted a venue in Newcastle and they gave me Susan’s number.”
Now well versed in stage crewing, she says she has never felt more fulfilled.
“At first I wanted to do sound but they have put me in the direction of tour managing which I’d never thought about.
“Through this I’ve met people who can make it happen.”
Jessica works for Eventcover Productions whose clients include the Utilita Arena, Port of Tyne and The Great Run Company, and is learning to drive a forklift, useful when constructing stages.
Luke Carey, from Salford, was finishing a music degree at Newcastle University when a friend directed him to Susan.
The 23-year-old had been working in a shop while studying but found himself at a loose end.
“I wanted to go down the tech route because I love wires and cables but I didn’t know the breadth of jobs available.”
Susan and her course had helped with that “massively”.
Luke went from bootcamp to backstage at a panto and is also on Eventcover’s books.
Now he and Jess have the chance to work as production runners over the summer, helping an artist on tour.
Susan pulls in trusted professionals to teach or instruct on her courses which offer classroom-based and practical work.
On day one, she says, new recruits are invited to recall a favourite event. She was thrilled when someone chose a Guns N’ Roses gig she had worked on.
It was a good moment. But she muses: “There’s no better feeling than thinking after a great gig: I was part of that. I helped to build that stage.”
Now onto her 10th bootcamp, each attended by up to 12 people, Susan is delighted to have had the thumbs up to continue until next April.
NTCA, having seen some 1,500 people complete skills bootcamps, recently secured a further £9m to extend its programme.
Bootcamp graduates Luke and Jessica say they like it that Susan keeps in touch. To do otherwise, she responds, would be out of character.
“In this industry trust is a huge thing and if people stay in touch with me and want to know more, I’ll do what I can to help.
“That was the opportunity I had so why wouldn’t I give back? I just want everyone to do really well.”