Connecting with Students of the Future
One of the most common problems that printers across every industry segment — including wide-format — bemoan is the difficulty attracting young, innovative talent into the workforce. Students today look to the “sexy” side of print, such as graphic artist or marketing professional, but many, if not most, overlook the creativity and talent required to run the presses themselves. That has led to staffing shortages across the country, as printers struggle to convince them to give printing a try.
But it’s not a completely lost cause. Connecting with students while they are still in high school or at college has become a priority for associations, vendors and printers alike. And their successes provide a roadmap that any vendor or printer can build from in their own local communities, creating lasting connections that will, in time, lead to long-term employment.
The Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) is one of the associations taking workforce development incredibly seriously, looking for new ways to connect with students on every level. “We’re working on that,” says Marci Kinter, VP — Government & Business Information for SGIA, at the annual 2018 SGIA Expo held in Las Vegas this past October. “This is part of the strategy we’re in the process of developing at SGIA. The Trump administration has set workforce development and skill as a top priority, and we’re looking to see how we can best take advantage of this movement.”
Partnering with Local Schools
One of those initiatives Kinter detailed is working with a newly-established apprenticeship program put into place at the federal level. A grant program was announced to encourage sectors, such as the print industry, to partner with educational institutions to develop strategies to train new workers on the job, giving students the opportunity to learn real-world skills and earning a small salary while still in school.
Equipment manufacturer ColDesi Inc. offers a perfect example of how a program like that can work. While their program was started before the federal push and grant program was put into place, it is a prime example of how to establish and run a highly successful printing program within a school.
“A little over a year ago, Plymouth State University (PSU) came to us,” says Mark Stephenson, director of marketing at ColDesi. “They were researching direct-to-garment printers and wanted to create a T-shirt printing lab on campus. They found us online, and we consulted with them for a bit to get it placed at the school.”
Stephenson notes that the PSU initiative is part of the American Marketing Association (AMA) collegiate program, with chapters across the country. Called MAPS, there is an annual competition where schools are challenged to create business labs and then run them successfully. PSU wanted to create a T-shirt printing business for theirs last year, to teach the students about things like marketing and sales, and how they are tied to production of physical goods.
“It was a huge success, on so many levels,” Stephenson says. “Initially because they were selling so many T-shirts, almost right off the bat. The direct-to-garment printer was hugely busy.” In addition, he notes, the school placed in the top five of last year’s AMA competition, and PSU is a small school compared to many of the other competitors.
The program has been such a success both in selling T-shirts and in keeping students engaged, that instead of moving on, they have decided to keep the program running, restoring a building on campus to house the business and ordering an embroidery machine to supplement their direct-to-garment printer. And this year, PSU is making it into a two-credit course, with 25 students allowed in each year, and a waiting list already forming.
“The program is geared toward sales and marketing,” Stephenson says, “but the students are seeing the value of custom apparel. They’re actually working the equipment and getting the sales, so they’re going deep into the business.”
This approach illustrates what SGIA sees as the future of apprenticeship programs. “It’s about understanding that education is about more than just spending time in the classroom,” Kinter says. “We really need to look at how to marry learning and skill-based training, and really look to cultivate that apprenticeship approach to workforce development.”
Even for printers who don’t have the resources to set up full print shops on local campuses, there are a range of benefits for getting involved with local high schools and colleges, beyond just cultivating future employees.
Stephenson notes that, for him, some of the intangible benefits were just as exciting. “It really got me excited to see things from their perspective,” he says. “What they like to do, how they like to do it, what they’re interested in, what their designs look like as opposed to commercial pieces. It was reinvigorating and gives a fresh look at the marketplace.”
It also plants a seed, he notes, that will pay dividends as those students leave school and start their careers, whether they join the print industry or not. “Why did Apple seed computers in every school? So, when they got out, the first computer they thought of was Apple. The same things applies,” he says. By creating relationships with students, print shops create a bond that means when that student needs print in the future, they will be more likely to look to their internship first. And for vendors, it can mean students involved in equipment purchasing as they move through the ranks will be more likely to think favorably of their machines. There is no downside for anyone in the industry to cultivating these types of programs.
However, Johnny Shell, VP — Print Technology & Training, SGIA, noted at the 2018 SGIA Expo that creating, running and attracting schools and students to these programs is a “steep hill to climb. We need the industry’s help in any way they can offer.” He urges printers to consider opening up their facilities for plant tours in partnership with local schools, or to look for other ways to get involved and get the younger generations interested in the printing process.
“Maybe even providing old equipment to local schools. That’s a tax write-off. Often school budgets are next to nothing, and it’s disheartening to see the struggle these educators face,” Shell says. “We as an industry need to take recognition of this opportunity and do whatever we can to make sure the future generation is properly trained and job ready when they leave school, as much as possible.”
The long-term benefits extend to the students, as well. For some, it will mean awareness of and access to a career they might not have considered before. Many students don’t realize there are still lucrative job options that allow them to work with their hands and not on computer screens. “We should be waving our flag,” Shell says, “that they should come check out our industry because we’re fun,” with way more opportunities than they might imagine. “You don’t go a day in your life without experiencing something printed on one of our technology platforms. I think students might not be aware of just how integral a part we play in everyone’s lives.”
There are many ways a printer or vendor can get involved with their local schools. To start, Stephenson suggests just reaching out to those schools in the first place. He encourages shops to not just take orders for “bling” but to use every order as an opportunity to educate. “Take something like a cheerleading squad,” he says. “It’s one thing to show them the bling. It’s another to show them a video of the machine, how their pieces are made and how they can customize everything.”
Further, he encourages printers to not just send over the finished product, but go in to personally help hand them out to the students, allowing printers to not just make a sale, but start to develop personal relationships with both the staff and student body.
“The more you participate and know the students, the more they will know you,” he notes, “and the more it will snowball.”
Open houses are another option, inviting local schools to come in and tour the facilities, with demonstrations of how the different pieces of equipment operate, how they all come together, and all the various types of pieces your shop can produce. In fact, Stephenson notes that creating training programs geared toward the local schools and their needs can be a great way to connect. Perhaps it is just a few online videos showing how to use different pieces of equipment, or an online series about all the different departments that make up a print shop. Arrange to make those resources readily available to students, and then make sure the high schools and universities are aware of them.
Other options could be paid internship programs offered to a few select students each semester. Or perhaps a job fair held on site, where other local businesses are also invited in to speak to students and offer them information about careers outside of what they might already be aware of. The key is to not sit back and hope the students will come. Rather, whether partnering with a university to offer a full-blown printing program, or just working with a local high school to introduce students to the print industry, it is imperative for everyone to get involved. Connections don’t just happen — printers, vendors and associations of all shapes and sizes must make the effort to get out there and get students talking about and interested in print.