Taking place this year from 9 to 13 November, TPi’s Production Futures goes online, offering a week of free web-based learning, resources and engagement with the global live events industry. The event also marks the return of the TPi Breakthrough Talent Awards, where students, freelancers and young people can be in with a chance of winning a seat at the TPi Awards 2021. TPi’s Jacob Waite catches up with last year’s Undergraduate of the Year, Owen McIlreavy to discover how he is keeping occupied in lockdown…

Where were you when the lockdown came into force?

“When the COVID-19 pandemic situation worsened at the beginning of March, as an international student, I was advised by the University of Derby to return home if possible. While the university already had a good online infrastructure for delivering the academic content of my course, this created an issue for the practical elements. Luckily, being in the latter part if the academic year, most of the assessed practical modules had been completed. However, my Independent Technology Project (“The Design and Build of a DMX Network Tester and Data Analyser”) required access to the specialist equipment in the soldering and electronics labs at the Markeaton Street campus. Thankfully before I returned home, I had my electronics assembled to a stage where I could provide a working prototype, and through the online resources I was able to complete my technical report of the project. With demonstrations of the devices’ functionality being delivered to assessors via video link.

“Once I graduated from university in May, I was due to start full time employment with IPS mid-June in their lighting department. Like any production company, the summer months are usually very busy for IPS, providing technical production for multiple festivals and events. One of those being Harper Adams University Summer Ball, where IPS provide full production, and I was tasked with producing the lighting rig design, overseeing its installation, and operating it throughout the event. However, with the way things have gone, IPS like so many other companies were not in a position to take me on in June, with the vast majority of events being postponed and rental orders cancelled.”

Have you managed to find any industry-related work / projects during the past six months?

“Being back home in Ireland, I contacted many events companies all over the country. Doing so, I found the situation here was much the same as that in the UK. With the majority of in- person events being cancelled, companies were moving to the production of virtual, socially distanced events. However, with Ireland having a much smaller population than the UK, I believe there has not been as much of a demand of such production here. Due to this new virtual aspect, the local population here can tune into events being streamed from the UK or further afield, and not feel like they’re missing out.

“A similar sector (to live events) I have seen continue to operate, if not expand, is the commercial AV install sector. With so many businesses and other sectors now having to move to remote/ distanced operation, it is understandable that there has been an increased demand for such install companies. The positions I am seeing available with such companies require good IT/ electronics/ networking skills, and after developing a lot of these though an IET accredited university degree, and self-education, this is a sector I have been looking into with a lot of interest, seeing good potential for the foreseeable future.”

Have you developed or enhanced any industry-related skills in lockdown?

“I have turned my attention to developing skills that would be applicable in the current job market, while also remaining useful/ transferrable within the events industry once it returns. One of these have been a counterbalance forklift license. Over lockdown and continuing now, I have seen a growing demand for warehouse operatives with a ‘forklift license being advantageous’. Getting this certificate, puts me in a better position for the current job market, while also adding a useful skill to onsite events work once it returns.

“I have also looked into learning the MA lighting control software while I am at home. When onsite, it is always good to be competent in multiple lighting control soft / hardware brands. As it allows you to adapt to unforeseen changes in production and makes you desirable / available to more production companies that may only stock a particular brand of desk. I feel adding MA will give me a real advantage in the professional industry, with my skillset being expanded to the 3 main control softwares; Avolites, Chamsys and MA Lighting.”

How has this sudden change in work life balance and the luxury of time affected you?

“When I finished university, it was always to be expected that I would have a ‘come down’ after handing in my final piece of coursework. However, finishing during lockdown, I felt the absence of then moving on and starting into work more then I had anticipated. I am the kind of person that needs to be kept occupied, be it through physical work or planning something for the future, two things that are a constant in the events industry. Throughout lockdown I found myself looking at what events went ahead last year, and re-designing/ planning them again as if they were happening this year. However, the satisfaction of seeing a design progress from conception, to pre-visualisation, then reality has been sorely missed.

“After being away from home for the past three years between university or summer work, it was nice to just be at home for more than a week or two. While I couldn’t go and see friends or extended family to begin with, it was nice to talk to them while being that little bit closer, and once lockdown restrictions were eased, I was able to see some family members I hadn’t seen since I moved to the UK.”

How do you see the next few months panning out for you?

“I have been keeping an eye on the economic situation both here in Ireland and the UK. Listening to predictions as to where each country would be in the short term and longer term, I have been assessing what would be the best plan of action to further my career. I like others around me, was originally hesitant to alter our projected career paths and held back to see if things would improve. However, this is only appropriate for so long, and I feel that young people entering the industry currently, like myself, need to adapt our skill sets and see how they can be applied to other industry sectors where possible. I am currently looking for work in these alternate industry sectors, applying the skills and knowledge I already have where possible.”

What advice would you offer to young people looking to break into the industry at this strange time?

“I, for one, like so many others have found these past few months to be difficult and frustrating at times. Working for a degree or certificate for an industry that is not operational when you finish has been quite disheartening. However, the current situation does not void or nullify the skillset, knowledge, or training that you have received. While you may not be able to apply them straight away in the industry sector that you wanted, every one is transferrable and applicable to some extent in a similar industry. I know a lot of people within the events industry have had to do this, and this may be the case for some time. However, the live events industry will return, and when it does it will need the same amount of fresh, young, new people like it always had.”

This article originally appeared in issue #254 of TPi, which you can read here.