By Iain Hamilton

WE all know how challenging many sectors are finding recruitment, from hospitality to logistics, but at the other end of the spectrum, often not in the spotlight, are the challenges young people have historically faced moving from their studies into the creative economy.

As an observer in the Scottish Government’s Creative Industries Leadership Group we often hear about barriers facing young people in the sector and Covid-19 has compounded the issue. Trainee designers and architects have been unable to secure the practical, hands-on studio-based internships that would usually be a stepping stone to their first role, and touring bands have been grounded, unable to travel for work or perform in person.

However, in the Highlands and Islands, an innovative pilot programme has proven the benefits of joining up academia with industry. The LevelUp! programme, jointly delivered by the UHI and Highlands & Islands creative economy support organisation XpoNorth, worked with 60 young people in the final year of their creative studies.

The students were matched with sector specialists in areas including music, screen and textiles and followed an intensive programme of training, support and mentoring. The results were fascinating; not only did the students flourish during the programme, but the sector specialists also benefited. They gained a deeper understanding of the gap between study and work, that they are now taking forward in their wider work with the Highlands and Islands creative economy. We need students to be work-ready, but we also need workplaces to be student-ready, and to support those who are brave enough to start their own businesses.

Conceived, launched and delivered online during the strictest period of lockdown, the project brought together academics, industry and students, learning from each other and transferring skills. We saw increased appetite and ambition from the first cohort of students and hope to expand the programme in the coming year.

In years gone by, many young creatives felt that there was little for them north of Perth and moved to the bright lights of Glasgow, London or overseas to fulfil their ambitions. But so much has changed and the Highlands and Islands now has a flourishing creative economy. Numerous successes in sectors including music, screen, textiles, publishing, heritage and digital prove the region has the infrastructure needed to base, build and grow global businesses.

Furthermore, the life/balance, outdoor and recreational activities available in the region are second to none. If lockdown taught us anything it was the benefit of access to great outdoor spaces, which the Highlands and Islands is rich in.

Further support is still needed to ensure that creative skills stay on the agenda. We need to ensure that as we work towards a fairer, greener country we continue to look outside the central belt for ideas and inspiration. Programmes such as LevelUp! are not a magic bullet to improve young people’s prospects post-education, but they do offer hope during a challenging time in a sector that offers exciting and rewarding career paths. I’m excited to see what comes next.

Iain Hamilton is head of creative industries at Highlands and Islands Enterprise