The chief executive of ScreenSkills tells Nikki Baughan why she is proud of the way her organisation has so quickly responded to the unique challenges of the pandemic
Five years after becoming CEO of ScreenSkills (formerly Creative Skillset), Seetha Kumar has stewarded the UK’s key training body through a tumultuous year, which has forced an unprecedented pivot to online learning. Yet Kumar, who is also a member of the Creative Diversity Network board — which looks to increase diversity in UK broadcasting — and previously served as BBC online controller with responsibility for overseeing the rollout of BBC HD, has not only embraced these challenges, but hopes the industry has learned essential new lessons that will bring new standards of accessibility, inclusivity and cohesion.
What has been your most memorable moment of the year?
The way that, as an organisation, we responded at such speed to do what we could to support the workforce, in terms of providing a whole host of sessions online covering a breadth of subjects from producing during Covid-19 to mental health support.
[ScreenSkills] was very much part of the task force that worked on and contributed to the British Film Commission [production] guidance. And we thought we could help create a training module that would be open to everyone. We brought in key individuals, we worked with people who had helped with Covid-19 training within the NHS, and we released the Covid Basic Awareness Module [which trains in production under new Covid-19 regulations] at the end of June. Since then, we’ve had 44,000 completions. I’m really proud of that because it shows that as a sector we can work quickly, and as an organisation we can work with agility and speed.
How have you adapted your working style to stay productive and sane?
Prior to lockdown, in late February, early March, we tested our technology and we did a day of remote working. Then, during lockdown, my senior team spoke every day. They in turn did the same with their teams. Every Friday we have an all-staff Zoom session. We have a quick work update, and we’ve created a tradition called ‘Two Pictures’, where individual staff members volunteer to pick two pictures that have nothing to do with work, that just mean something to them, and tell us the story behind them. It’s a wonderful way of bonding. Sometimes we pick key issues to discuss, whether it’s mental health or, when Black Lives Matter was a seminal moment, we talked a lot about race, ethnicity and fairness.
On a personal level, it was nature that helped, going on walks. And I find it incredibly helpful to meditate, which I do every day.
You mentioned Black Lives Matter. How does the industry ensure it supports inclusion and diversity moving forward?
I’m a woman of colour. I am tired of seeing initiatives that often don’t go anywhere. I, like a lot of my colleagues with lived experience, simply want sector clarity in terms of access, of pathways to jobs. I’ve been clear from the time I took on this role that everything we do is linked to actual jobs. What I think is needed across the industry is more clarity in that.
Oftentimes, people feel they have got to do something [to address inclusion], but actually some organisations are simply not best placed to try and create new initiatives. What would be more helpful is to look at what already exists and think how we can bring them together. We need to provide clear pathways so that people can navigate their careers in what is a genuinely exciting but rather unstructured industry.
In pivoting to more training that takes place online, are you reaching people you may not have done before?
Definitely. We’ve provided access in terms of masterclass sessions for practical subjects like how you produce during the coronavirus, how you manage new workflows. We’ve also experimented with [training in] things like afro hairstyling, filming with drones. But more needs to be done in innovation around digital training. You want to know whether a session is creating the right impact.
What changes have occurred in 2020 that you would like to see continue into 2021?
I would love to see behavioural change continue. The impact of Covid-19, of Black Lives Matter, has opened up seminal conversations about our sector — how we can work in a kinder, more equitable way; access, inclusion, remote and flexible working. I hope this continues for the long haul.
Thinking about the coronavirus-specific training you’ve implemented, will that have a life beyond the pandemic when we return to a normality, in terms of transferable skills?
First of all, what is normal? The only thing we know is that there is always change. And we are giving birth, collectively, to a new way of working, a new world. Things like remote working, flexible working, are not going to stop. Look at what a production manager or production co-ordinator has to do now, for example — the new forms of budgeting, organisation, leadership. Software competencies and the skills you need in how you communicate effectively, how you achieve delegation. Collectively, with the right will, there will be further change. As long as we’re open to that, we won’t go back to exactly how life was. So these skills remain relevant.
You emphasise mental wellbeing and support for your community. Has that increased in importance over the past year?
With Covid-19, people are more willing to talk about mental health, but it’s something we’ve always done. When you look at a person, you have to look at the whole person. Quite often, people don’t know whether they are bullying, or enabling talent to flourish. So these leadership management skills will always be important to what we do. Similarly with inclusion, whether it’s things like being aware of unconscious bias, or how you recruit in a fair way. These are core competencies. If we can get a uniform, standardised approach that everyone’s aware of, you can hopefully build on it.
Is that something you’re hopeful for in 2021 and beyond?
Yes. I’ve always felt that as a sector we need to professionalise our skills. As an industry, we are global, our content travels everywhere, so we need to have global standards. As a skills body, we want to provide standards and frameworks across the breadth of craft and technical grades, and across the critical behavioural competencies that we all need. It will help us build a new, stronger ecosystem.
Do you think that is still possible, even after the pandemic and with all of the uncertainties of Brexit looming?
I absolutely do. We’ve got the talent and the will. Yes, there’s been a lot of creative technological disruption, but look at the speed at which we’ve adapted. I think there’s a lot of foundational work we need to do, we need more coherence across skills. We need to stop fragmenting [the industry] and causing confusion. I would love to see the UK not just retain but also build on what it has achieved.
What excites you about the future of the film industry?
I love that we are amazing at telling stories and creating content. And what’s exciting is all the new ways of doing that; how you enhance storytelling to make it more visceral, open and accessible to everyone. Talent is everywhere. And if we can get that breadth of talent to have the opportunity to tell these stories and be part of that magic, that will be amazing.
Our Perspectives on 2020 series sees key figures from across the international industry landscape share their experiences during the pandemic year and their thoughts on the future. See below for more interviews in the series: