Theatres skills shortage worsening since pandemic: Bectu survey

1 December 2022

A new survey from Bectu outlines low pay, long hours and poor work-life balance as key issues driving the continued skills shortage plaguing the UK’s theatre sector.

The sector was one of the worst affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns and many, including Bectu, called for a post-pandemic reset to address poor terms and conditions, modernise the industry and  create fairer working conditions.

However, the survey of over 800 people working in all parts of the sector suggests a number of factors driving people to leave the industry have worsened over the last three years. 60% of respondents said that staff shortages had become ‘much worse’ since 2019.

Across September 2022 Bectu collected workers’ views on how reported skills shortages personally affect them, their working lives and implications for the wider industry.

Theatre talent drain

The biggest factors cited for respondents’ colleagues having left the industry included poor work-life balance (84.8%), unsocial hours (74.5%) and the low pay that the sector offers in comparison to other industries (77.2%).

Worker stress and work-life balance getting worse

More than 77% of respondents said that stress levels at work had deteriorated since the pandemic, with 34% saying they were now ‘much worse’.

Well over half of respondents said that the sector’s long-standing issue of poor work-life balance had also worsened since the pandemic.

An urgent need to professionalise

Frustration with the industry’s lack of professionalism appeared throughout the survey responses.

94.4% of respondents said that the industry relies upon a ‘the show must go on’ attitude for its resilience, and 89% of respondents agreed that this appeal to goodwill is used by employers to unfairly pressure workers into doing work that they shouldn’t be asked to do. Respondents overwhelmingly said that they wanted the industry to professionalise itself instead.

Over half the respondents said that they didn’t believe that their employer was good at ‘upskilling’ people so that good candidates were available when jobs became vacant.

Almost 70% said that they believed that “people are promoted before they are ready for it and their lack of skills/experience creates problems for others” and 62.8% disagreed that the industry has a professional attitude to recruitment and attracts people based on skills and not ‘who you know’.

Read the summary of the survey’s findings here. 

Commenting on the survey findings, Head of Bectu Philippa Childs said:

“A long hours culture, low pay and poor work/life balance have long plagued the UK’s theatre industry. Our latest survey shows these issues continue to bite for the sector’s workers, and are all the more concerning in the context of a cost-of-living crisis that shows no signs of waning soon.

“It’s particularly concerning that the industry seems to have missed the opportunity for a reset presented by the pandemic, with more than half of respondents reporting their work-life balance has worsened. Many theatre workers are at breaking point and the industry cannot expect them to remain ‘for the love of the job’ when there is better pay and better-balanced working lives to be found elsewhere.

“The industry must seriously scrutinise its culture; workers are the industry’s lifeblood and unless there is a meaningful increase to basic salaries and the long, unsocial hours are addressed then the skills shortage will reach a tipping point.

“For too long it is workers who have suffered at the hands of a damaging ‘the show must go on’ mentality. The sector must urgently professionalise its approach to recruitment, skills development, and retention if it is to remain fit for purpose for a modern society.

“Bectu will continue to advocate on behalf of its members for improvements on conditions and pay, and push for the sector to embed sustainable working practices. We will be sharing the survey results with SOLT and UKT and look forward to productive discussions on how to address these pressing challenges.”

Fit4Purpose: a call for change

Bectu will soon relaunch its Fit4Purpose campaign, focusing on the steps needed to transform the theatre industry to create a fair working environment for all staff in the long term.

Bectu recognises some of these changes will take time to implement, but we will be seeking to engage with the Society of London Theatres, UK Theatre and employers to drive long-term and sustainable change in working practices and culture.