Skills, Talent, and Education in the XR Industry

Consumption of digital media has risen dramatically as a result of coronavirus lockdowns, with virtual reality (VR) headsets selling out and augmented and immersive (XR) content being downloaded at a faster rate than ever. This is a promising sign for the growing XR industry which has great potential but faces investment, business development, and skills needs.

The UK immersive sector currently lacks enough workers with the correct skillsets, expertise, and education for the field to reach its full potential.

  • Immersive companies are struggling to grow their businesses when their employees do not have the complete required skillset.
  • The skills gap is both technical and creative, and further widened by a lack of experience.
  • The immersive industry talent pool often comes from other screen and creative sectors, resulting in diverse teams which require skilled leadership and management.
  • Diversity of roles and small team sizes result in ‘slash’ positions, meaning employees are further asked to develop their skillsets to meet the demands of multiple roles.
  • A possible solution would be reworking the education pathway to teach technology and creative skills in an interdisciplinary way and promoting transparency in the process.

The StoryFutures Academy report found 65% of companies identified lack of employee skills as a significant barrier to their company’s growth, and Immerse UK and Digital Catapult found 45% of their survey respondents from the immersive industry found it difficult to recruit talent with the right skills. Previous work identifying skills gaps in XR has focused on on overlapping areas including: technical literacy and training; creativity; XR-specific experience; and management and leadership.

A Creative Industries Policy and Evidence Centre report found that the supply of talent in the creative industries cannot keep pace with industry demands. There is also an over-saturation of non-essential skills. These trends indicate a breakdown in the graduate and training pipeline: skills taught are not aligning with the skills required by the industry. This phenomenon is increasingly likely to be exacerbated as the market for immersive media and technology grows.

The XR skills gap

Part of the reason for the skills gap is due to the interdisciplinary nature of the field, requiring a combination of technical skills with creative abilities, sometimes referred to as ‘createch’. Technical and creative training are the foundation elements to the XR field, yet there is a sizeable skills gap for particular skills, such as creative design and the ability to use Real-Time Games Engines.

XR projects often face a challenge in finding employees or freelancers with the full skillset required, leading to a highly competitive labour market. Roles are often advertised as ‘slash’ positions – e.g. creative director/content designer – even when there may not be an employee who has the specific range of abilities for the combination of job roles. By creating slash roles, companies allow themselves to respond flexibly to new demands and engage team members in projects more holistically, without as much of a reliance on freelancers and outsourcing. Although this method works well in an emerging field where small teams are common, it also places pressure on workers to develop varied abilities for hybrid roles. At the same time, it asks them to develop specialised XR-related experience while undertaking the other parts of their job. The StoryFutures study found 48% of their respondents were employed for roles that previously did not exist, making the identification of necessary skills harder and the demonstration of experience more difficult.

Due to the emerging nature of the market, the sector’s primary talent pools come from non-immersive sectors such as TV and film. According to work by StoryFutures Academy, 31% of workers (the highest response in the survey) had no previous work experience on immersive projects.

A lack of XR experience for employees results in a literacy gap between the areas workers come from (e.g. general software development) and the XR industry, indicating that communication skills are vital for cooperation and understanding. Lack of clarity about skills needs, and the promotion of workers to management positions without leadership training, further exacerbates problems stemming from the literacy and skills gaps. As immersive companies are often small in size (<10 employees) and rely heavily on freelance workers, clear skills development pathways are essential for company growth and job quality assurance.

Education pathways as a solution

Reworking education pathways offers a potential solution to these issues. Ensuring graduates and apprentices are trained in the skills the immersive markets need would alleviate pressure on companies to retrain workers from other creative industries on the job. Although the general creative industries feature a highly educated workforce, the lack of educational emphasis on STEAM skills (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) in combination with creative training leaves graduates unable to meet the interdisciplinary skillset required in employment.

The rapid development of the technologies used in the XR industry limits the alignment between education courses and industry needs. University courses struggle to keep up with the quickly evolving technological demands of the industry and can often fail to fill the skills gap on their own. As 57% of those in creative media have a higher education degree (significantly higher than the 37% average in the UK economy) altering the higher education pipeline to include general STEAM skills will help eliminate the need for as much on-the-job training and self-teaching

In the immersive industry there is no clear entry pathway and the lack of transparency in the transition from education to work can also discourage entry. This can mean that only those ‘in the know’ have access to the jobs available. This lack of transparency decreases the opportunity for a diverse workforce and leads to freelancers undertaking free or underpaid work to build the skillset and portfolio needed to break through the employment wall. When coupled with the fierce headhunting of those with the desired myriad of skills to fill ‘slash’ positions, this often leaves potential employees and employers unsatisfied.

This report was prepared by Kelli Kennedy XR Stories research intern, and Sam Stockley-Patel, XR Stories Research Associate. .

Published on 27 August 2020

Filed under: Research