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Digital Media Skills for All: Trends in the California Workplace
John Avakian

The California Community Colleges’ Economic and Workforce Development (EWD) Program has 10 statewide initiatives that target business development and workforce training needs. One of these programs, the Multimedia and Entertainment Initiative (MEI), is now in its eighth year.

MEI builds and delivers programs that prepare students for careers in the media communications, entertainment, and interactive learning fields. The initiative serves industry and the state’s 110 community colleges in 72 districts with six funded regional centers, a varying number of short-term grant projects, and a network of more than 300 faculty involved in teaching digital media skills.

With technologies and staffing demands changing at warp speed, the challenge is to keep skill sets up to date and align them with the evolving needs of California employers. The role of community colleges in California is to provide curriculum development and professional development for instructors and deliver course content for college students and industry employees in a flexible, timely, and low-cost manner.

To stay ahead of the technology curve, MEI monitors emerging workplace trends. These include

  • A cyclical California entertainment industry of self-managed contractors and small-business players;
  • Expanding need for digital-media students to acquire self-marketing and presentation skills;
  • A need to define and deliver a digital-media skills set for the working population in general;
  • A preference for the blended learning model among entering college students in urban settings;
  • A preference for distance learning among returning students in the digital-media professions, and among students in geographically outlying areas;
  • An explosion of interest in gaming technology and animation careers among California youth;
  • A need to support and encourage development of articulated media arts programs in secondary schools;
  • Online conferencing as a cost-effective way to network students, faculty, staff, and industry employers from diverse regions of California; and
  • Migration of core design tools and methods to a wide range of design and media arts disciplines.

From a funding perspective, MEI functions outside the traditional instructional approach. Since monies originate from the chancellor’s office through competitive grants, MEI is not forced to survive on the basis of the number of enrolled classroom students. This funding anomaly allows MEI to respond more readily to changing industry needs. MEI regularly convenes industry groups, develops curricula, and disseminates course materials across the statewide system.

MEI has a searchable curriculum database of community college programs and courses providing quality instruction in areas of digital and traditional media, graphic and web design, e-commerce, and web mastering.

Statewide Networking

For the past six years, MEI has hosted an annual Media Arts Award Competition for high school and community college students in California. The 2005 competition, which drew nearly 700 entries from 45 participating institutions, included a web-conferenced award night with simultaneous transmission to Northern and Southern California venues. Students learn from one another’s entries, which are actually extensions of class assignments. MEI used Macromedia’s BreezeLive for the simultaneous awards presentation. Prior to California’s economic swoon, we flew finalists to a single location. We no longer have the financial resources to do this.

The competition, which is growing at the rate of 30 percent annually, garners the attention of state and local employers. One discernable trend in this year’s contest was the across-the-board use of core tools, such as Macromedia’s Flash and Dreamweaver, and Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop. Although Flash initially functioned as a two-dimensional animation and motion graphics tool, students of visual imagery and graphic design are extensively using it both to develop and animate their images. Information about the program can be found at http://www.cccewd.net/mediaarts.

Entertainment-Sector Trends

In California, the entertainment sector is the largest source of digital-media jobs. The contraction and expansion of employment in the Hollywood-based industry parallels the roller-coaster behavior of state and national employment. In 2002, the total number of entertainment workers in the state was 397,983, down from a peak of 431,886 in 2000 (Entertainment Economy Institute, 2004).

A recent EEI study of the California entertainment sector provided a good news-bad news scenario with implications for workforce development in general and community college involvement in particular. The good news is that the Hollywood workforce is roughly twice as large as was previously believed. The bad news is that it is less stable, and the work is less steady. Hollywood’s workforce increasingly relies on income from outside the industry.

The study, which tracked entertainment industry employment in California from 1991 to 2002, is the first in a series that will collect and analyze Hollywood workforce, employment, and production data. The initial survey underscores the cyclical nature of the entertainment field and the predominance of small firms with fewer than 20 employees. In any given year, according to EEI, almost half of entertainment workers relied on non-entertainment jobs for their primary income. That trend is growing, and the intermittent category of worker now represents the largest share of the entertainment workforce. We see these creative high-tech workers as digitally migrant. A typical worker’s career path, therefore, is as a self-managed contractor rather than as an employee.

MEI is currently using data mining to determine where these intermittent workers are going. We want to define the high-tech transferable skill set for people who are specifically working on the technological side of the entertainment industry. This high-tech skill set has significant commonality across other industries, such as real estate and architecture.

From 1991 to 2002, entertainment industry employment increased about 29 percent, compared with 17 percent for other state private employment. Average payroll wages, at $56,253, outperformed the average of $40,769 for the California private-sector payroll.

Animating a movie production or designing a video game is challenging, lucrative work, provided you can get it. We are finding, both in the classroom and in the Media Arts Awards Competition, that design and media arts students are reluctant to stand in front of a group and describe their work. These are critical skills, particularly for highly paid contract workers in a creative industry. All Media Arts instructional programs should require that students build a digital portfolio and present it in group settings.

Digital Communication for All

Digital media skills come in two general flavors. The high-skill variety equips design and technology professionals for gainful employment in a creative digital environment. A broader, lower-level digital media skill set is necessary for much of the general working population in all segments of industry.

In addition to preparing students for creative careers and enhancing the skills of existing digital-media employees, we are looking at the broader, nonspecialist picture: What are the appropriate components of a general digital media skill set people must have to succeed in the 21st century workplace? MEI will spend the next year exploring this question.

Regardless of their career goals, all community college graduates should have a demonstrable skill set related to technology. Students must learn to use word processors, spreadsheets, and email and must be web literate, with the ability to access online information and differentiate between reliable and unreliable content.

Thirty years ago, graphic designers determined the relative placement of text and graphics in a document. Today, the nonspecialist often makes these visual communication decisions. Working on an as-needed basis, staff assistants create newsletters, maintain websites, and use applications such as Macromedia Contribute to update a workgroup website. They need to understand how writing for the web differs from writing a letter or an article, and how to tailor content accordingly. They need to understand the visual communications concepts of font choice, point size and white space. They need to understand what makes one photographic image work better than another, and the distinction between a JPEG and a TIFF.

This represents an enormous opportunity for the community college sector. In addition to delivering certificate and degree programs to prepare digital media communication professionals, they should deliver segmented or modular content that allows incumbent workers to get the information they need for added productivity in the workplace.


Entertainment Economy Institute (2004), California Entertainment Workforce: Employment and Earnings Analysis, 1991-2002 , http://www.entertainmentecon.org.

 Aho, K. (2005, May). “Teaching Digital Communication to All Students.” T.H.E. Journal

For more information, contact
John Avakian
Statewide Director
Multimedia and Entertainment Initiative
California Community Colleges’ Economic and Workforce Development Program






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