Finding Skilled Workers as Veteran Printers Retire, Shortage of Trainees Looms
If you were to walk into the production areas of several printers anywhere in North America, you would undoubtedly observe something they all have in common. No, it’s not the equipment. Nor is it the facility design. It’s the average age of their employees. Look at the press operators. The skilled bindery technicians and, yes, even the prepress techs. Odds are you won’t see many people under 30, or for that matter under 45.
How did this happen—and more importantly—what does this mean for our future? Regardless of what the “tekkies” are saying, digital printing is not going to replace all of our offset presses, and in-line finishing isn’t going to replace our needs to bind and finish off-line.
The printing industry has always been a craft industry. One learned through a formal apprenticeship (when there were trade unions) or on-the-job (OJT) under the tutelage of someone more knowledgeable. Many would begin in small job shops operating single-color duplicators/presses or simple bindery equipment and then make job hops for the opportunities to operate more complex equipment and hone the skills necessary to be called a Craftsman.
The apprenticeship programs, as well as many of the high school and trade programs that fed the industry, are long gone. The duplicator press, which was the genesis of the journey to become a press operator, is hardly ever found in print shops. The job shop has been replaced with a broad range of print providers—all running digital equipment.
Another complication was that the industry workforce took a dramatic hit in the “Big Recession,” which was acerbated by the move to digital-based communications. There was no reason to hire new people and anyone with sub-standard skills was let go. We went through nearly five years of limited hiring in the pressroom and bindery. Anyone who had been laid off in 2007 or 2008 quickly determined that their future no longer existed in our industry. The result ended up being that we no longer had the “reserve” labor pool that, in prior business cycles, was always available.
To confound matters, many outside of the industry, and for that matter too many inside the industry, were forecasting the death of everything print. Anyone who understood the craft of print and was employed was not too excited about leaving their present job—especially in light of a rapidly shrinking industry where closures and consolidations were occurring at historical rates. And, young people had no interest to get into a “dying” industry.
That’s how we got here.
The major challenge facing the industry during the next 10 years is not technology and marketing, but finding and training people. A recent study conducted by several Printing Industries of America (PIA) Affiliates asked the question: What percentage of your skilled workforce (Production Personnel) do you estimate will retire in the next 5 to 10 years? More than 50 percent of the respondents indicated that a significant amount (30-50 percent) of their workforce would retire in that period. The same survey showed that the median age in the offset pressroom was over 45 in nearly two-thirds of the companies surveyed.
A crucial question is where will we find people with the right skills (attitude, ability and work habits) to replace our existing workforce? More importantly—how will we train them? The industry predominately uses OJT to train (85 percent, per the PIA Affiliate survey); consequently the industry’s “trainers” will very quickly be departing the industry.
By the way, our industry is not the only one facing this challenge. Many firms in the manufacturing sector are seeing identical issues. The baby-boomers who comprise a large subset of skilled employees are beginning to leave, and changes in technology and workflow are making them look beyond their competitors for personnel. We’re not alone.
What’s the answer? It’s a recommitment to training.
In the past, management relied on labor unions and trade schools to develop a core of trained individuals. That is no longer an option. Equipment manufacturers no longer have the depth in their organizations to provide training as they did in the past, and the trade associations don’t have resources to create print schools, which historically were supported by public dollars.
Yet, if all of these groups work together there is hope. Industry organizations can be the fulcrum that can leverage spreading the word to educational institutions that the industry still needs young people. Employers need to recommit their efforts (and $$) to create on-the-job programs that can quickly develop the skill sets needed in today’s world of print and technology.
A variety of tools already exist to support training in the pressroom and bindery (Printing Industries of America’s Training Curriculums) and there are vehicles that measure and benchmark an individual’s skills (National Council of Print Industry Certification).
Industry manufacturers and industry associations can partner to find ways to recruit “graying” industry trainers who don’t want to retire at the golf course, but find ways to give back to an industry many dearly love.
All it takes is a bit of creativity, a few dollars and a commitment that print is still a viable industry. PI
About the Author
Joe Polanco is a product of industry trade schools and developed a passion for all things print decades ago. He began his career as a press operator, earned a printing management degree and has held various management positions within the industry. Polanco presently serves as the president of the Printing & Imaging Association of MidAmerica, a regional trade association affiliated with Printing Industries of America.