Commercial Printing's Aging Workforce: It’s Not Somebody Else’s Problem to Solve
Recruitment, retention, and training of the future workforce has been consistently identified as the No. 1 issue facing the commercial printing industry. The question is what to do about it — and who is responsible for doing it.
As noted by the study, “Workforce Concerns in Graphic Communications,” by the Graphic Communications Workforce Coalition (GCWC), the percentage of the printing industry’s workforce on the verge of retirement is growing. In 2016, 36% of the workforce was aged 51-60 years old. If the staffing dynamics hold true, in 2021, that means 36% of the workforce will be 56-65 years old.
“Think about that — 36% of printing employees are at or nearing retirement age,” notes Jeff White, director of development for the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF), which offers scholarships to students looking to make a career in the printing industry. “As those workers retire, those positions need to be backfilled with younger workers, and there simply aren’t enough in the pipeline.”
Yet, what are printers doing about it? Many have fairly low turnover, so they assume that, when they need to make a hire, they’ll figure it out. However, they might be in for a rude awakening.
“There are fewer and fewer graduates from four-year schools like Clemson and RIT, and high schools and trade schools that used to be pipelines for bindery and [offset] press operators have been phased out,” White explains.
“Job placement sites like Monster and Indeed may provide candidates with mechanical aptitude, but those workers still need to be trained, and that training takes time. Bindery operators can be trained in a matter of weeks, but press operators can take years.”
Think Patented, a commercial printer offering everything from creative and premedia services to data-driven mailing campaigns, came face-to-face with this problem a few years ago. “We decided to categorize all of our employees in 10-year age buckets,” Niels Winther, managing partner and chairman of the Miamisburg, Ohio-based firm, explains. “We classified those employees in buckets of 20-30 years old, 30-40 years old, and so on. We discovered that we had many in the 50- to 60-year-old bucket and some in the 60- to 70-year-old buckets. If multiple people decided to retire at the same time, we would have a problem. We had to get in front of that.”
What’s the Answer?
What about the talent still within the printing industry? Even as employees re-enter the workforce due to downsizing or closures, printers still find it increasingly difficult to hire people once they become available. Skilled operators may not always want to relocate to fill open positions, preferring to transfer their skills into a new industry instead. Automation has come to the rescue to a certain extent, allowing older workers to stay in the workforce longer due to elimination of heavy lifting and repetitive motions. But it cannot stop the clock.
What’s the answer? It’s not to continue to do what you’ve always done. Just ask Paul Jendrick — owner of Allsigns, a sign production company in Bel Air, Md. — who used to work with the local high school to create a pipeline of potential hires until its work-study program was discontinued. One of the company’s recent retirees, in fact, came out of that program.
“He started as a sophomore in high school and worked for me for 25 years,” Jendrick recalls.
With that program shut down, when Allsigns needed to fill an opening for an operator for the shop’s flatbed UV printer and 63˝ wide-format printer, Jendrick turned to newspaper ads, Facebook, and street-facing signage instead. He made four hires for the same position, none of them successful.
“Each hire lasted a few weeks,” Jendrick says. “They had a poor work ethic, or there was an issue with drugs. One guy just packed up and moved out of state. It was not a great experience.” Then COVID-19 hit, and instead of trying to make yet another hire, Jendrick and his team pitched in.
This illustrates the challenge faced by smaller print shops. Without the pipeline of vetted quality candidates that comes with having an HR department or working with a local school, shop owners and managers are left sifting through the local pool of potential employees on their own.
Leaning into staffing agencies can be one aspect of the solution. Industry-specific agencies like PrintLink can be critical to the pipeline of white-collar hires, particularly management level hires, but this solution draws only from the well of existing employees.
DIY Workforce Development
The answer for many companies is to handle their own workforce development. This involves locating and training qualified candidates, as well as doing industry education and generating interest in the printing industry as a career option. Is it a significant investment? Yes, but for companies like Think Patented, it’s not an option not to do it.
Think Patented has an active apprenticeship program. Currently, it has two apprentices on staff. Its first apprentice graduated and is now two years into his employment as a lead stitcher operator.
Despite past success, Think Patented has watched with concern as the trade schools have closed their graphic arts programs. This, combined with the accelerated retirements resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, Winther knew that the company had to become even more proactive.
“We sat down with our managers and said, ‘how do we find the new workforce for the future, especially in the bindery and production?’” Winther says.
The answer was to go directly to local vocational and high schools with graphic arts programs and invite the career counselors to come up to visit the shop. “We wanted them to see what a modern-day printing company is about,” Winther adds. “It’s not dirty fingernails and a dungeonous looking plant, but a clean, safe environment with full automation. It opened their eyes. Now they are helping us talk to the kids about looking at careers in print going forward.”
In addition to looking to fuel its apprenticeship pipeline through high schools, Think Patented also created direct mail pieces aimed at high school students. “We went to every household in the area with kids that were juniors or seniors in high school,” Winther explains. “The postcard described what we do, how modern our plant is, and how big a future it offers. We talk about how, once one of the children becomes a press operator, they could be making $50,000 to $60,0000 per year.”
Direct mail might seem like an unusual way to fill the pipeline, Winther acknowledges, but workforce development has to be a multi-pronged process. “Most kids don’t know what they want to do for a living,” he says. “You have to get to mom and dad.” Have the mailings yielded results? “Not yet,” admits Winter, “but if in a year from now, we can get an apprentice that came to us because a set of parents got a postcard that told them about Think Patented, I consider that worthwhile.”
Think Patented has also leaned into the talent of its internal employees, whether from temp agencies or working in other departments. Its current apprentices were tapped internally — one hired from a temp agency and another taken from its shipping department — and Think Patented is in the process of adding another from fulfillment. “Managers watch for great attitudes and a good work ethic. If they like what they see, they offer these employees the opportunity to grow,” says Winther.
Think Patented’s program starts apprentices in a one- or two-year program in the bindery or on presses. Apprentices must be at least 18 years old, working in concert with an academic curriculum at an accredited institution. The company encourages apprentices to apply for financial assistance for their schooling through the PGSF, where Winther serves on the board.
Think Patented also runs internship programs and has engaged interns through Ferris State, Clark State, and Clemson. These employees come out of college with four-year degrees and go into management, estimating, or other front-office positions.
Winther also looks for any opportunity to get the company’s name out there as a great employer. “We try to become known wherever we can — by serving as a member of the local Chamber of Commerce and by participating in local events — to let people know about us. It’s important to stay visible, not just for getting business, but to let people know that we are a good employer, too.”
While not all of Think Patented’s efforts will yield full-time employees, Winther says it’s worth it. “Rome was not built in a day,” he says.
It’s Not Up to Someone Else
Suttle-Straus, based in Waunakee, Wis., is another company that has decided workforce development isn’t up to someone else. It knew that it had to step up its game when the number of technical schools feeding applicants into its apprenticeship program started dropping precipitously.
Known for its leading edge digital workflow and automation, Suttle-Straus knew that it could get front-office hires, even if it had to train them in the printing production piece. It recognized its most critical need as being in production — binding, finishing, and press. “It’s far easier to train front-end employees about printing than it is for trainees to gain the hands-on production expertise necessary for production,” Susan Pschorr, human resources manager for Suttle-Straus, points out.
The answer, Pschorr says, was to start developing its workforce even earlier than technical schools — at the high school level. So the company began inviting guidance counselors, students, and teachers in departments such as tech ed and art to come in and tour the facility.
“We have them meet with the production managers, take a tour, and see the equipment and all the things we produce,” Pschorr explains. “We give them a better understanding of what the industry is — that it is about creativity and making things, not just running a piece of equipment. We also want them to know that it provides quality, well-paying jobs, and that students don’t necessarily have to go to college to have a career.”
The response has been tremendous. Suttle-Straus hosted two or three people for its first open house. Right before it had to shut down its program due to COVID-19, it hosted more than 20 people. “We got to the point where we had counselors and faculty asking, ‘when is your next open house?’” Pschorr says. “We can’t wait to pick up where we left off.”
The surprise experienced by the counselors, instructors, and students was not just about the diversity of the printing industry. It was about the working environment. “We have a nice facility with modern equipment,” she adds. “It’s clean and well-lit. It’s not what typically comes to mind when you come to a printing company. That’s why our best marketing tool is to get someone in here and let them see what goes on.”
Suttle-Straus developed its training program in-house. Pschorr worked with production managers and employees who had been through apprenticeships to get their ideas on what trainees needed to learn, and in what order. “Now, trainees work alongside experienced employees, on the equipment and on live customer jobs, in an order that makes sense based on the feedback we’ve gotten,” she says.
Trainees’ compensation is reviewed on a regular basis to keep them motivated. “As long as they are meeting expectations of what they are learning, they continue to advance,” according to Pschorr. “They gain experience very quickly, and they are rewarded for that.”
One of Suttle-Straus’ success stories comes from an employee who had been working at another company in a warehouse. While he had no printing industry experience, he was eager to learn and was interested in pursuing a long-term career. Now, he has been with the company for two-and-one-half years.
Such successes are just a reminder of how important it is to invest in new talent before you actually need it. “When someone retires (or leaves for any reason), you have not only lost that employee, but you’ve lost the knowledge that person carries, as well,” observes Pschorr. “If you get those trainees in early, they can be working alongside that seasoned, experienced operator, learning what they know.”
Suttle-Straus recently saw a number of retirements from its workforce, so it is not anticipating as many retirements over the next couple of years. Yet it continues to invest in these programs as a cost of doing business. “Like every company, our team is getting older, so at some point, we will be in that situation again,” Pschorr notes. “When that happens, we will be ready.”
For many printers, the need to be proactive about their workforce development is driven by competition, as well. For Heeter, a Canonsburg, Pa.-based printer that offers commercial printing, direct mail, and fulfillment services, this is not just competition from other printers, but from gas and oil companies.
“Everyone is clamoring for skilled labor,” notes Kirk Schlecker, president of Heeter, which is located in the heart of Marcellus Shale country. “Many of the young talent in our local workforce grew up in a culture where you automatically go to work in gas or coal. When we are looking for someone who is mechanical, it’s difficult because printing doesn’t have the profile that these other industries do.”
Takes Years to Train Lead Press Operators
Difficult or not, Schlecker says, non-action is not an option. “I say that knowing that our staff is actually younger than most,” he says. “Ten years ago, most were around 30 years old. However, one quarter of our workers are 10 years away from considering retirement. It takes years to train lead press operators and other highly skilled production operators. We have to be looking ahead — now — about how to fill those positions.”
Like many of his peers, Schlecker knows that Heeter’s biggest selling point is the company itself. To cultivate that pipeline of future employees, his team works with local high schools and community colleges to bring students in for company tours. Students whose interest has been piqued can apply to participate in a work-study program as part of their high school educations or, after graduation, apply for its apprenticeship programs online.
Laura Schlecker, owner of PeopleFirst HR Consulting and Heeter’s human resources consultant, manages these programs. “When students come in, their eyes go wide,” she says. “They see the how clean the plant is, and all of the technology. They are amazed by the level of automation of our presses, including our Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105 sheetfed offset and Ricoh VC 70000 high-speed inkjet web.
“It is completely different from their expectations. Plus, they are surprised to learn that, just out of high school, they can be making really good money,” she stresses.
Heeter’s apprenticeship program is designed to let students know that the company is offering more than just a job. “We offer the opportunity to be creative, be a “maker” of things, and provide a long-term, highly satisfying career with high growth and income potential,” Laura Schlecker adds.
Heeter has been recognized as one of the “Best of the Best” status Best Workplaces in the Americas program.
Although its workforce development efforts may take a while to pay off, Kirk Schlecker does not see investment in workforce development as optional. “We didn’t start this to fill a job,” he says. “We did it to start a pipeline. Otherwise, our labor pool is going to run dry.”
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel
While setting up a recruitment and in-house training program might seem daunting, printers do not have to do it alone. If they don’t have the in-house expertise, there is help available.
Among the options: ask for help from industry vendors (including using any established training programs); incorporate the resources of industry consultants or training companies like Sinapse Print, which offers print simulator training; join the GCWC, which provides guidance, peer support, and networking; and donate to the PGSF to support the ability of more young talent to enter the printing industry.
Printers can also consider printing and distributing plug-and-play educational materials, such as PGSF’s “Careers in Graphic Communications” brochure and GCWC’s Print Everywhere campaign promoting the value of careers in print.
Regardless of how printers choose to get involved, they need to do it. “It’s going to take everyone to start turning things around,” White contends. “We have to educate the public that the printing industry offers strong career opportunities that parents want their children to enter. Printers are going to have to be proactive about creating their own pipelines. No one is going to do it for them.”