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Net Working: Work patterns and workforce policies for the new media industry

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Net Working February 2001 | EPI Book

NET WORKING

Work patterns and workforce policies for the new media industry

Rosemary Batt
Susan Christopherson
Ned Rightor
Danielle Van Jaarsveld

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Executive Summary

This report, based on a study of a group of highly accomplished “new media” professionals in New York City, is one of the first to take up labor market issues in this burgeoning industry. It describes the challenges faced by professionals and employers alike in this important and dynamic sector, and identifies strategies for success in a project-oriented environment with highly complex skill demands and rapidly changing technology. The findings suggest three central issues.

The skills challenge

  • New media workers are largely self-taught and invest a significant amount of time learning and upgrading their skills. The New York new media professionals studied here spend, on average, 13.5 unpaid hours per week in obtaining new skills. Skill acquisition has been an individual responsibility both because the interactive nature of computer tools allows new media workers to learn new skills at their own pace and within their own learning style, and because formal learning programs have not kept pace with skill needs in this fast-changing industry.

  • The informal approach to acquiring skills in new media makes recruitment and selection more difficult for employers because they cannot assess the skill level and sophistication of potential employees or contractors.
  • In addition to technical skills in programming or the use of authoring tools, the skills that are viewed as most important to success in new media include general problem solving, the grasping of the big picture of a project or business, management of relationships with colleagues, management of information and resources, and management of customer relations. The most sought-after professionals are those people who combine technical knowledge with sales, marketing, or managerial skills. These “hybrid” professionals need both a facility with new media technology and more traditional business skills that can be applied to new media enterprises.

Policy response

The new media professionals in this study identified better access to skills training as their most significant policy issue. Employers, professional associations, and other industry stakeholders need to work with training providers to insure that their offerings reflect current industry requirements. A skill hierarchy in the different segments of new media work (e.g., web page design and management, digital design) needs to be developed to enable entry-level workers to undertake a career-building skill development program. Training programs must reflect the pace and hands-on nature of skill acquisition in new media. A more efficient, reliable, and standards-based system for skill certification is needed. All this will become increasingly important as the industry grows beyond a relatively small community in which prior personal connections are sufficient to establish one’s ability and reputation.

The sustainability challenge

  • New media professionals are rarely “employees” in the way the term is typically understood. Most work by moving from project to project, providing specialized inputs into the creation of products such as movies, advertisements, and web page designs. Social networks are central to job search and employment security in new media. Respondents rank friends and colleagues far above any other source of jobs.

  • Full time does not necessarily mean long term. Even among workers with full-time jobs, tenure with an employer averages only six months. Career paths are organized around the acquisition of a marketable portfolio of specialized skills and prestige projects rather than tenure with a long-term employer. Successful careers often involve movement from full-time employment to independent contractor status to entrepreneur.
  • The average work week for respondents is 53 hours long. Yet, on average, they reported that they spend only 49% of their work time in new media on direct production. The remainder is spent on the search for new work, client relations, and administrative tasks. This time spent on indirect functions (and the associated “transactions costs”) is in addition to the time spent on unpaid learning. Thus, new media workers spend more time trying to maintain steady employment and future employability than they do working on current projects.

Policy response

Personal networks and professional associations are central to the ability to maintain employment in the new media industry and to the reduction of transaction costs for both employers and the workforce. The capacity of professional associations needs to be increased so they can better play the role of labor market intermediary in this industry. This is especially true for organizations that serve women and minorities, who rely on associations more than personal networks in obtaining jobs and building a career.

The security challenge

  • Though this study covers a more successful and established segment of the new media workforce, only slightly more than half of survey respondents were satisfied that their current job was secure. Moreover, even with the industry growing dynamically, only two-thirds of respondents felt confident that they would have steady employment over the next two years.

  • Despite the fact that this group of professionals had relatively high wages and strong wage growth in the 1990s, these workers’ satisfaction with their pay and their confidence in future income security were not so robust. On average, only about half of the professionals surveyed believed that their pay was fair. Slightly more than 60% were satisfied with their future career prospects or felt that their income would be sufficient to meet their future family needs.
  • The survey documents a benefits gap between full-time employees and independent contractors and entrepreneurs. However, even full-time employees in this study had low benefits coverage. Only 77% of full-time professionals receive basic health insurance from their primary employer, and just 72% have comprehensive health care. Only 63% have some type of retirement plan from their primary employer, and 55% have a deferred income plan such as profit sharing or stock options. For independent contractors and entrepreneurs, less than one-quarter receive any of these benefits from their primary employers or clients, and only 11% receive comprehensive health coverage.

Policy response

The new media professionals in this study identified access to health insurance and other protections as a key policy concern. In a flexible, project-based industry such as new media, mechanisms need to be developed that provide necessary securities, such as health insurance, outside the boundaries of the firm. A precedent and model for providing benefits in project-oriented industries exists in “old media” institutions such as the Motion Pi
cture Health and Welfare Fund.

A way forward: the importance of regional partnerships to new media’s future

New media people eschew the concept of a new media “industry” in favor of a notion of membership in a “community” of new media artists and professionals that encompasses employers and members of the workforce. Successful development of new media will require strategies that are:

workforce oriented – focusing on the people who are the industry, on the workforce as well as firms and their clients;

sectoral – building on the common interests of employers and new media professionals to create a sustainable industry;

regional – utilizing the personal networks and local connections that sustain a project-based industry.

Strategies that foster training programs, infrastructure, and services available to many firms within a sector produce far greater benefits than the conventional approach of helping individual firms.

New media associations play an important role as labor market intermediaries. Survey respondents said that associations were particularly important as sources of information on new media products, services, equipment, and software, and as sources of learning about the latest technical advances in the field. What is needed in new media is a commitment of public sector, professional association, and private sector actors to make a collaborative model – one that will meet both workforce and employer needs – the center of efforts to build the industry. This study provides several models.

I. Introduction

Many cities across the United States want to find ways to attract “new media” professionals and to build the kind of environment that will let Internet-oriented activities thrive and grow. As public officials have recognized the potential of the Internet to create jobs and revitalize cities, studies of new media firms and industrial districts have multiplied. Almost all of these studies have solicited firms for their perspective on what problems need solving and what policies need implementing. Yet, although the viewpoint of firms is critical, a broader base of information is needed if we are to understand the Internet-driven portion of the economy and take advantage of its potential. In particular, we need to know more about Internet-oriented work and about the challenges facing people who do that work.

This study is one of the first to take up the labor market issues facing professionals and employers in the new media industry. It focuses on a group of highly accomplished professionals in New York City to identify lessons for success in a project-oriented environment with highly complex skill demands and rapidly changing technology. The professionals surveyed earned an average of $99,000 from new media work in 1999, far more than the national average for people employed in this area. Yet, they faced significant challenges in acquiring new skills, managing their careers, and establishing employment and income security.

This report describes the labor market strategies of new media professionals as well as the challenges faced by professionals and employers alike in this important and dynamic industry. It focuses on three central issues.

  • The skills challenge: What is the demand for skills in Internet-driven work activities? How do high-skilled professionals working with rapidly changing technology acquire and maintain their skills? How do employers find the right workers in a labor market with no established standards or means of certification?

  • The sustainability challenge: In a labor market characterized by short-term projects, where turnover is high and employment stability is low, how do new media professionals build stable and rewarding careers? How do employers secure a steady stream of skilled professionals?
  • The security challenge: How do new media workers create long-term security and income growth in an industry dominated by short-term contracts? What solutions exist to ensure that this growing portion of the workforce has long-term health care and retirement security? What are the tradeoffs for employers who lack the commitment of a long-term workforce?

Although this study is based on interviews and survey data from new media professionals in New York City alone, the lessons apply in varying degrees to other project-oriented workers and to new media workers in other locales. We found, for example, that in contrast to the Internet’s spaceless, placeless image, new media workers are very much rooted in a place and to the personal networks that help them find jobs, identify and learn new skills, build careers, and secure their futures. Building the strength of these connections, in new as well as tried-and-true ways, is key to creating sustainable careers in new media and, by extension, a sustainable industry.


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