From time to time a Cal Arts professor invites me up to give my take on the cartoon industry and how to break into it. Doesn't happen a lot, but I have no trouble shooting my mouth off for sixty minutes about the state of the animation business to a captive audience. Here's the condensed -- and slightly revised -- version of what I said yesterday:
Getting into the animation biz. There's a thousand different routes. If you have the right skill-sets the industry is looking for, it's way easier than if you don't. It's also easier if the industry is expanding rather than contracting, but not impossible either way. New blood flows in under all situations, it just flows more freely when the cartoon business is robust.
Know what your workplace rights are. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (as amended), you are either an employee who is exempt from overtime requirements ("time and a half after forty hours worked", etc.) or you are non-exempt (meaning they've got to pay you, no matter what.) Some of the divisions might surprise you. Designers and board artists and other who create "original images" are exempt under regulations; "animators" are non-exempt.
In my experience, many studios ignore regulations, sometimes purposely, more often because managers don't pay attention. I don't advocate jumping up and down over every infraction that happens to you, but it's a good idea to know your rights so that you can push back if abuses are chronic.
The days of decades-long employment at one company are over. Today the watch word is "project to project." If you luck out and work on The Simpsons for twenty years, bully for you. But you probably won't. Build a network of friends and allies. Accept the reality that you will be moving around a lot.
Learn to play well with others. Getting along with peers and supervisors is essential for career longevity. The great artist who is a pain to be around, who fights, complains and argues, will be working far less than the merely good artist who everybody likes because he's pleasant, supportive and helpful.
Unions and union contracts are useful to work under. Obviously I'm prejudiced here, but the statistics are compelling. For most, working in the unionized part of the biz will mean you'll have a bunch more money at the end of your career.
You will need luck, a good work ethic and talent to succeed in the animation business. If you have more of one of those things you probably will need less of the other two.
That, in essence, was what I told all the bright-eyed youngsters. Nobody ran screaming from the room.