Episode 7: Workforce Development

In the first episode of Season 2, Sophie speaks to Nick Kay, Workforce Development Officer at Royal Pavilion & Museums.

Launched in 2012, Royal Pavilion & Museums’ innovative workforce development programme is a unique example of an on-the-job museum training scheme. Nick talks about the ethos behind the scheme, what has made the initiative so successful and how in-house training isn’t just a box-ticking exercise for assisting staff in climbing the museum career ladder, but about enabling a good quality of work life regardless of your position in the workforce.


Narrator: From Brighton on the English South Coast. These are the voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums with Dr Sophie Frost.

Sophie: Thanks for joining me again and welcome to series 2 of ‘Voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums’. I thought, what better way to kick off this series than by starting at the ground up? Over the next two episodes I’ll be talking to members of staff who work on the frontline at Brighton’s museum service, hearing about their hopes and dreams and what gets them out of bed in the morning. Launched in 2012, Royal Pavilion & Museums’ innovative Workforce Development programme is a unique example of an on-the-job museum training scheme. The programme enables staff, predominantly those working in retail and visitor services roles, to branch out and try their hand in other departments for temporary periods where they provide either much needed support and alternative solutions or devise new creative projects and activities. In this episode I will speak with Nick Kay, Workforce Development Officer at RPM, about the ethos behind the scheme, what has made the initiative so successful and how in-house museum training is not just a box ticking exercise for assisting staff in climbing the museum career ladder but about enabling a good quality of work life regardless of your position in the workforce. But before we get to Nick, we’re going to hear very briefly from Sue Winkett, a member of the Visitor Services team, who introduces us to the diversity of the workforce at RPM.

Sue: The people that they take on, it’s from such a broad background and I think that’s where they excel because you are bringing in many different skills, everybody complements each other, it’s such a melting pot and it works really well. I love that about the place, and you have people in there who are really, really highly skilled in their areas. It just might not be that museums and the Pavilion is their background, but I think they’re all the better for it.

Sophie: From everyone I’ve interviewed so far, and just a sense I have from RPM, there is a lot more openness to everyone being on the same level but also real value in everyone’s perspective. Would you say that was right?

Nick: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I think in the early days there was some suspicion about it, and I think we can be quite a suspicious lot, but that was recognised by senior management, by the leadership team. This project was devised with that in mind. I think it was recognised that in some ways there’s two services, there’s a kind of split within one team, there’s a different ethos, there’s a different culture and there’s a different outlook about the whole organisation. A different feeling of belonging, of sharing responsibility. To tackle that was always one of the core aims: to build a one-team mentality within the organisation, that’s listed as one of our objectives and I think it overcame that kind of suspicion, that doubt. You hear lots of things, you hear people say ‘there’s no point being involved because nothing will come of it, there won’t be any development, won’t be any jobs at the end of it’, which I think missed the point but I also think that those days are behind us now. I think there’s a considerable amount of staff that buy it and it’s not just the frontline staff that’s been overcome that have been on board with it and champion it, it’s throughout the whole organisation. I think we found reluctance not just from some frontline staff, but from certain other parts of the service: they struggle with their own problems, their own lack of resources, lack of time and I think there was a feeling that they didn’t want to let anyone down as well. That’s something we heard quite frequently, that we still hear today, that they don’t want to disappoint people. I think that completely misses the point, it is about creating the opportunity and meeting the strategic needs of the organisation. When I’m faced with a question and someone says, ‘the person may work with me, but they are going to have to go back to their team, will they be disappointed at the end of it?’, and I say that they probably will but they’ve had that opportunity, that experience now and they’ll never look back and they’ve had the benefit of having that extra staff member there. It builds relationships, really positive relationships, really positive working relationships and friendships that are hugely beneficial for the organisation and what we deliver. We have had exhibitions and displays because of those associations and friendships with people built up by working in different teams, that kind of cross-pollination of ideas and enthusiasm between teams. Another thing I hear all the time is someone say that they don’t have the time to do this at the moment, to take on a placement. Something I’m conscientious of is not to put an extra burden on them and say that they have to do it or use their better nature to have them to agree to something they haven’t really got the capacity for. I always stay clear of that but I do try to make the argument to say that I don’t want it to be another burden on them. The perfect arrangement is that the person who works with you from the frontline doesn’t increase your burden, they take some of it away, they take some of your workload away, they contribute in a really meaningful way. It doesn’t always have to be geared towards an exhibition or a display, it works wonderfully when it is, but sometimes just to have those extra staff members working on projects, to work on shadowing, to make a contribution across the whole service. There are so many numerous examples, right now we have two workforcees working with our retail and stock department and they’re learning how to do those things, how to order stock, what should they be buying? What sells well? How do you put it on a display that works? And they’re doing it for a team that is incredibly depleted and really appreciative of having those two extra people there, those frontline staff. They’re learning those really valuable skills for the first time.

Sophie: Is it just frontline staff that benefit from Workforce Development? Are they the ones that generally do the placements or are there other people in other departments that do placements? Does it work both ways?

Nick: No, so it’s purely for frontline staff and there’s a couple of reasons for that but actually that’s quite broad – it’s not just for room stewards or gallery explainers, it includes the bookings office, ticket sales, retail team and cashiers. It includes our housekeeping team, security team and learning assistants as well. It’s fairly broad and it’s quite a lot of the workforce.

Sophie: What are some of your favourite stories of people’s career trajectories as a result?

Nick: Well, there’s someone working as a curator today that worked from our frontline services and our first really valuable experience. It was practical, so you could add it to your CV and add it to job interviews, so she did, and it was the doorway really for a career in museums. She’s not the only one, there’s so many, we have two of our Collections Assistants now that work on the other sites both started from Workforce Development, both desperate to work in that area of museums. There was no pathway towards that without Workforce Development. It enabled them to really fulfil their ambitions with the museum service. We now have bitesize talks about our collection in Brighton Museum every week, it is now a permanent part of our programming and it started because of Workforce Development with someone that now works with programming who started from the frontline. There are so many, I struggle to remember them all. Right now we have one who’s working with our Museum Mentors group, part of our outreach programme to work with the community, who’s looking towards perhaps leaving our service but is still with us at the moment combining it with his training but looking towards a career to work at adult social care. His future possibly lies away from the museum service but without Workforce Development he wouldn’t have pursued that avenue at all so it’s a great opportunity.

Sophie: That’s amazing, that’s really inspiring.

Nick: Yeah, it really works here, and it works on so many different levels. For some people it’s not about furthering their career. When we say opportunity, it’s quite broad and I know someone that isn’t looking to move on, they’re perhaps in the last few years of their career working, but for the first time they were given the chance to work on areas of our collections that they never have before. They have been an invaluable member of our frontline service team as a room steward for many years, but it gave them the chance to create tours of our underground tunnel system to the public. They devised the text and the delivery for those talks, and it was an area of the building that they had a passion to open up to the public for years and years and Workforce Development fulfilled that ambition. So, it wasn’t about career possibilities to him. It was really about maximising the enjoyment of their job and it brought huge benefits. All these years later we do hold those Tunnel Tours and they are still very popular. They’re still sold out and it started because of Workforce Development.

Sophie: There’s something so lovely in that as well that it’s not just about careers, it is about staff wellbeing on the job and their contentment and by continually opening up new opportunities to be curious and develop experience, so that’s amazing. A programme like this, we don’t come across very much in the museum sector. You don’t see such an established Workforce Development. What are the conditions in a museum that need to be in place in order to have a Workforce Development programme of the kind of strength and tenacity that is now at RPM?

Nick: It started as a great idea between two members of staff: between the director, Janita, and the Head of Learning and Development, Helen. It started as a series of talks between them, it is part of our funding agreement with the Arts Council. It meets our strategic aims in terms of that funding, it is embedded in terms of our organisation and it was loose in those early years. It started off as a wonderful idea, but things can take a while before they really take shape. I think it’s fair to say in the early years there were successes, there were some really great ones like the Pavilion Tales, which is a series of public talks, and the bite-size talks. However, on the whole I think people were feeling it out, there were not that many uptakes from the frontline service. It took a few trailblazers and a few people to champion it, and it took time for some of the suspicion to fall away and for people to fully open up to the advantages that come with it for them and for the organisation. For those people who host placements the advantages they have are through letting someone new come into their team with loads of ideas and lots of enthusiasm and energy. I think, we’re in a much better place now where everyone is sold on how positive it is, how agreeable it is. We’ve had people who have never hosted a Workforce Development come to me and say, ‘I’ve got this wonderful idea, it would be brilliant if we could have a Workforce Development to help with it.’ We’ve got so many great ideas; we can’t always fulfil everything we’d like to. We still have a limited budget and other restrictions on the workplace because of stresses and a lack of resources. It is about navigating a pathway and finding out what works, and always being careful that this doesn’t become a detriment in any way. There should always be that positive strategic outcome as a clear aim of what we’re trying to achieve, and that can be for the organisation and the individual. I always start by saying ‘what are their aims in terms of their skill sets? What learning outcomes are we hoping for?’ and running through them and putting those in the call-out sheets to say ‘this is what we are looking to achieve by the end of this talk for you’ on a very professional footing. Sometimes in the earlier days it wasn’t so clear, it wasn’t so precise. Some people really opened up to it in a really positive way and said that they were happy to have someone work for them and they shadowed, but maybe on reflection there wasn’t those learning outcomes that we really wanted. It was just there for its own sake. It was really nice as people involved someone, but I don’t think there was that lasting gain for the organisation or for the individual that was taking part. It took some time and I think we’ve gotten there now. I think the first time whenever a proposal is mentioned now, we all discuss what we are trying to achieve with it, what’s the outcome for the person? Is there a career pathway for this? If it’s a project, how do we best deliver that? That’s our main focus now and I think that’s where it shifted, I suppose. It has gone up a gear. We’ve had a number of organisational aims and I’ve talked to my manager in Learning and Development about adding and new one to it. It’s one that I always think was part of our Arts Council funding agreement, one of the aims for that but not one that we included as an objective for RPM and that was diversity. My perspective was that we weren’t singing our praises enough, a whole area was missed out of what Workforce Development was bringing to organisation. My eyes were opened up to this a bit more when we had some recent meetings with the Arts Council and the way that they saw it fulfilling their objectives because there’s several ways. There’s always been a diversity angle to Workforce Development that’s part of our commitment to the Arts Council that we deliver and open up an opportunity for frontline staff, inherently that’s opening up more chance, it’s more diverse, that’s great. It’s the second phase of that I think we missed out on; we’ve done that but how do those people taking part in the project improve the diversity of the whole organisation? Now, we can look upon it as a mechanism that delivers fundamental change to what we deliver as a service to the public. I’ll give you an example, one thing that’s talked about so often is ‘how do we reflect our community?’ and it’s so important, we can sometimes forget that they’re here all around us right now, our community is working for us in the museums. Everywhere you go when you buy something in the shop, when you get served in the café, you’re meeting the Brighton & Hove community right here and now. So, if we’re looking for ideas, we can do it through outreach programmes, we can do it through consultation with the communities, but we can also involve our staff in decisions we make. We can have their input in the projects we deliver.

Nick: I was presented with an opportunity several years ago because of the Workforce Development programme and it gave me a chance to step out of my role. It began with conservation, it’s still something I do today. I have two jobs at the moment and that started the ball rolling. From that, a role became available to help support the project permanently and I applied for that role which wouldn’t have come about without the previous involvement and that’s the role that I’m in today. My work is shared between those two jobs. I only have really good things to say about it, it’s a wonderful project, I have to, I work in it. It wasn’t the earliest days of the project, but I think it was still fairly early, it’s before they had what my job is, an officer who helped support it, and things were slightly looser at that time. So, what started out as a temporary arrangement got extended for months and months, for the best part of a year, so it became a long placement. That highlights an important benefit of Workforce Development to an organisation because what it really does is highlight where there’s a need in the service, where there’s a shortfall in staff. We needed preventative conservation assistants and we didn’t have them. We were going through a period of time where recruitment was difficult in the local authority, it was problematic recruitment, there was a freeze in employment which affected us but there were still all these roles that needed to be carried out. One method that we had of filling that vacancy was to use all resources, to use the frontline resource. Using me as an example, I left my role to go and help that preventative conservation team, the budget from the Workforce Development would pay for the backfill of my role for another member of staff. It gave work to someone else and it enabled me to help that team and we got work done because of it. Now, if it had been a short role that would have been of limited use to the conservation team, they needed someone for a very long time, and I was there for almost a year. It really highlighted the sort of desperate need: the organisation had to have that project. There are different sides to it. It’s really easy to look at Workforce and say that this is a scheme to support frontline staff to give them the opportunity to make them feel more involved, to promote our one-team mentality and it certainly is that but it’s also a strategic aim for the organisation.

Sophie: I like the way it’s a two-way thing as well, it gives a lot of opportunities to staff to upscale but then it also really works to the advantage of adding to the strategy of the organisation in terms of having short-term cover that they really need. The freeze in employment, was that around the financial crisis?

Nick: It was. It was tied to funding shortfalls in local authorities. It wasn’t really directly a problem for our service, but we were part of Brighton & Hove City Council, the local authority, so that impacted us at the Royal Pavilion & Museums. It’s also beyond that as there’s plenty of times even when there isn’t that lack of resources or that shortfall in funding where it’s just not the right option to recruit for a permanent post. It’s not just a short-term fix, it’s about the development of the whole service as well as the individuals. We focus again on the individual staff development and sometimes that team development of the frontline service, bringing them into the wider organisation, but it’s also development of skills within the service and I’ll give you an example, mine was conservation. Those skills haven’t gone, whatever you learn you’re ready to be called upon again to go and step in if there’s another shortfall, if there’s something needed. And that’s not just one thing, that’s across the whole service. Mimsy is the classic one, I quote it all of the time, it’s a cataloguing system for museum collections and it takes a long time to train someone up to use it. We’ve had several members of staff, through Workforce Development, who have had experience with the collections team using that system. I wouldn’t say any of them are experts but it’s a really valuable part of the project to have upskill to that extent across the team, to have people who are au fait with the system who can step in and volunteer as many of our Workforce Development placements have when it has come to an end. They’ve gone back into those teams and volunteered their time to gain valuable experience because they enjoy working in that environment. It helps out, there’s always going to be a shortfall in resources in museum services and it’s up to us to find creative ways to fill in that shortfall or that skills gap in your organisation.

Sophie: There’s so much negative press about how hard it is to be a young person coming out of university and going into the museum service, an abundance of negativity actually, and maybe there’s a bit of a lack of pragmaticism and here you’ve got an amazing programme which actually says ‘yeah okay elements of it are unstable but then you get access to something like this.’

Nick: Absolutely. This was always one of my key reasons for becoming involved. I think it’s true that we’re in a sector that is shrinking. At the same time, I think the willingness of people to become involved is increasing. There’s less opportunity but more people applying. There is other means of people entering museum services, people volunteer or take internships. There are quite a few ways in, and they all have their place, but I think you need to offset them sometimes with a completely different kind of workforce project. This is what we do, and I think you’re absolutely right that not everyone can afford to work for free. It’s an important part of museums but its problematic at the same time, there are accusations that it could be elitist. There’s an argument for that. I think also there’s an argument to say that it’s exploitative as well, in certain cases. I certainly saw, having worked there for a long time, the makeup of the frontline service change beyond all recognition. It was mainly staffed, particularly stewards, with ex-servicemen, ex-police officers, people close to retirement age looking for a quieter job and within a few years it became completely different. We have to be honest to say that the job market means that people aren’t always in a position to say that they’ll work for free and that would be their entrance into museums. They need to work but they want to gain experience too. We see applicants all the time in a variety of roles, having done that you need to utilise it, you need to give them the opportunity and not waste what they can bring. That’s what Workforce Development does. Most of the people that apply for roles now are postgraduates, they come with expectations. I think it is a shame that there are not more projects like this in other museums and other historical buildings. I think you would have better morale if everyone did that. Start in one area, pick up all those skills and perspective and then move on and take it with you.

Sophie: What would be your hopes and dreams for Workforce Development? Where could it go next? What’s the bit of it that still gets you out of bed in the morning?

Nick: To a certain extent it is embedded in the organisation in a way that is tied to that Arts Council funding, but it has always been an aim for us to embed it more seriously within the organisation beyond that and to say that these are the permanent outcomes we have managed to achieve. One thing that was discussed is perhaps an alternative job role. Once we are aware that our frontline team are more flexible, there’s skill sharing and job sharing between them, the next step is to say ‘why is it so fragmented? Why are so many positions so closed off with their own tasks and their own responsibilities?’ Especially when the idea is to break down those barriers. One idea was to merge all those frontline job titles and include some other areas they’re not historically responsible for or involved in, conservation is a very obvious one. There’s many more I think we could look at and that could be an interesting part of entrance level jobs into museums. Why can’t that be the frontline role? Why do we have to call them stewards or call them cashiers when there’s a great deal of movement between people in those jobs? They try to share those roles and responsibilities anyway now. We have people trying to encourage them to give more talks, we have Pavilion Tales where they go away and do their own research and then they deliver them to the public every Thursday lunchtime. The notion was that it would be a bitesize talk, or a small pop-up talk, and in the end, it merged into this big piece of research being delivered to 20, 30 or 40 people. Looking at that and other areas it’s not really the role that they applied for, it’s not the role that we advertised and it’s not one historically that we’ve had at the Royal Pavilion. Maybe we could revisit it and create a job title that included all these aspects and give it a name, the one that was suggested at the time was Museum Assistant because it’s vague enough that it can incorporate all these other aspects to their role. It can include what people are actually doing and it could include Workforce Development. It has been hard to get that off the ground and I think there’s a number of reasons for that. There are other priorities, of course, and there’s a certain amount of inflexibility that comes with being in a local authority, but I think we’ve taken the first few steps of that recently. There’s a job which was very temporary, it was aimed around museum galleries which are closed for long stretches of the year and so it was very isolated to just a couple of rooms and they had no work outside those rooms and when there’s no exhibitions they didn’t work at all. I thought perhaps this is ideal if we introduced them into the rest of the service, and we’ve done that. Those jobs are now under a new title, perhaps we have taken the first few steps towards creating a whole new frontline role with shared jobs, shared responsibility, with loads of different jobs within it that they can move around in. That would be a more attractive proposition to the people that apply as well as being a more honest advertisement for a job. It sets a very clear purpose of what someone is trying to achieve if they apply for a job like that. I think it would be more attractive to people. It would be more valuable for them even if they only stay a short time, to be able to say to another employer that they worked within this role, they had all these different experiences, this very flexible post and gathered loads of experience in a museum service in a historical building.

Sophie: What’s the main block at the moment to introducing that job role? I presume there are quite a few, are there?

Nick: Things move very slowly. We are moving to a Trust; we are perhaps moving away from Brighton & Hove City Council as the organisation responsible for RPM and looking towards a different model, a Trust who will deliver our service in our future. Perhaps with that will come a certain amount of flexibility that we haven’t had before, and we can more easily make these changes.

Nick: Whether it’s someone who has just started, or someone who has been there decades it doesn’t really matter. What it gives them is kind of hope and opportunity, another avenue, another work experience and that can be so transformative. Again, I go back and say it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re looking for different employment or to advance through that organisation. I think it’s about quality of work and life, you can’t put a price on that. I think it’s so important. It’s what they take back to their team, they can go back so much more positive and so much more enthused. We have people bursting with ideas. So many people having finished one Workforce Development placement want to instantly take part in another one and are ready to apply. I’ve seen the confidence of people transformed by being part of the project – delivering talks in a public space for the first time or going to work in a job they never thought they were capable of or anyone would offer to them. Just being utterly changed by that in the workplace, that’s what strikes me about it and that’s why I applied for this post. It’s really gratifying for me to see.

Sophie: That’s a really lovely point to end on. Thanks Nick.

Sophie: My thanks go to Nick for taking the time to speak so passionately and eloquently about this innovative training scheme at RMP. Surely an inspiring example for many museum services out there. It was Nick’s use of the word ‘transformative’ that got me most in that interview, the fact that the opportunity for staff to try something new was both a personal and professional experience from which has emerged new friendships, a new sense of contentment and well-being whilst nurturing a spirit of lifelong learning across the organisation. RPM’s Workforce Development programme demonstrates the breadth of what on-the-job training can mean in a museum setting, the potential of which goes far beyond just having new skills and experiences to put on your CV. Throughout this series, the positive impact of the Workforce Development scheme at RPM will reverberate across the voices of museum staff. This is notably the case in the next episode where I’ll be talking to some of the walking encyclopaedias, who make up those working on the frontline, about how the museum service has changed the way that they see the world.

Sophie: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode hit like and subscribe and please leave us a very nice five-star review. Find out more about the Royal Pavilion & Museums at brightonmuseums.org.uk and more about this project at onebyone.uk, on Twitter I’m @soph_frosty and RPM is @brightonmuseums. I really hope you can join me next time. ‘Til soon, goodbye.

Narrator: The Voices of the Royal Pavilion & Museums are supported by the One by One research project, the School of Museum studies at the University of Leicester, The Keep, Arts Council England and produced by Lo-Fi Arts.

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