Current State of Printing Industry Staffing and Training Efforts in Response to an Aging Workforce
Across every segment within the printing industry, in all corners of the country, one issue remains universal: staffing is a challenge. Commercial printers have been struggling to fill open staffing positions for a number of years now but, as more skilled operators begin to reach retirement age, attracting younger generations into the graphic arts field is becoming even more critical — and more difficult.
The printing industry is competing against not just other print shops for these workers, but with other industries, ranging from manufacturing work in other sectors to high-tech jobs that appeal to what Gen Z workers have grown up thinking about. There is no one right answer when it comes to convincing them to give the printing industry a try, but there are a number of ways printing companies can transform themselves into a more appealing option.
Staffing: It’s All About the Exposure
Right now, most young adults in high school, and even college, have very little knowledge about printing, how it works, or how it can be a satisfying career path. They simply aren’t being exposed to it, and that is one of the first steps in attracting them to your operation.
“The first roadblock [when it comes to attracting younger generations to print] is a lack of knowledge,” says Lisa Vega, the executive director of The Mariano Rivera Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping connect underprivileged youth with career opportunities. Print is one of the latest industries the foundation is working with to build connections. “They don’t know about the printing industry, and not knowing about it is not going to let them even consider it [as a career path.]”
“First of all,” says Harvey Levenson, professor emeritus at Cal Poly, “they don’t think about this industry. People don’t plan to join the printing industry; it just kind of falls into your lap. Kids in high school are not saying, ‘I’m going to join printing.’ It’s something they learn about in college, or when they go to pursue a career.”
On the plus side, Brian Regan, president of the Semper Group, notes the younger generations don’t have an inherent bias against print that has to be overcome before that conversation about career options can even start. “‘Print is dead’ stopped with the Millennials,” he says. “Think about that generation — when they thought of print, it was newspapers and magazines, so the concept of ‘print is dead’ made sense to them. But the current generation doesn’t think about newspapers or magazines — those have never been prevalent for them. So ‘print is dead’ doesn’t make as much sense to them. This is a positive for the industry, since it means it can redefine itself.”
And redefining itself is something the industry needs to think hard about. Levenson points out that while this generation might not think print is dead, when it comes to actually working in the field, if someone does mention it to them, they tend to have a picture of the traditional look and feel of printing — dirty clothes, ink everywhere, etc. Getting in early and exposing students at the high school level — when they are starting to think about what the future will look like — and showing them a vision of how a modern printing company actually operates, is one of the first steps in beginning to cultivate that pipeline of talent.
“Part of it is that, as a society, we’ve created a belief that you have to go on [from high school] and get a four-year degree to make a good living,” says Brianne Petruzalek, VP of human resources at Worzalla, a Stevens Point, Wisconsin-based book printer. “That’s what they’ve been brought up to believe, and it’s not the case — you can have a great career with a technical degree, or coming right into the workforce. There’s a perception of what it means to work in manufacturing — that it’s dirty, with long hours and not good pay. As manufacturers, we need to figure out how to change that perception.”
“In our opinion, there is a robust labor market in print currently. The real issue, exasperated by the pandemic, is systemic,” Dino Scalia, managing partner at PrintLink, says. “The industry needs to do more to attract young people and dispel the notion that print is a dying industry. Accomplishing that will require thought leadership and an openness to accept that the next generation of workers are driven by different motivators than their parents were. This is definitely a ‘long game’ strategy, but a necessary one.”
There are a few different ways printers can help start the process of exposing the younger generations to what the printing industry actually looks like today:
- Forge relationships with local high schools — especially high school guidance counselors — to educate the adults who are guiding these students to career options on what print can provide. Create allies for our industry with the people who are influential at this stage in these students’ careers.
- Get involved with the local chamber of commerce, and be present as part of the community. This gives younger generations a chance to see your company in a different light, and learn in a more relaxed atmosphere.
- Partner with schools to offer plant tours as field trips to expose students to what a modern working print service provider looks like today.
- Work with — and donate to — organizations that provide scholarships to students interested in print and graphics, which helps increase their ability to reach and financially support more youth, and in turn helps raise awareness across the board.
“As an industry, we all need to do this,” Regan stresses. “Every last one of us. There is no one group that will solve the problem, but what will is if every single person who works in the industry is a positive mouthpiece.”
Embracing a New Image
“Print is not sexy,” says Jules Van Sant, founder of Bubble & Hatch and chairman of the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF) board of directors. “I’ve been saying that for years. We’re a much more technology-based industry than we used to be but, unfortunately, much of the leadership in place is still looking at it like old-school printing. We need a new, long-term approach when it comes to how we position printing companies. Not just when it comes to marketing, but it also impacts who you attract as employees.”
Levenson notes that printers need to stop referring to themselves — and even thinking of themselves — as print shops. “The way they talk about the company has an impact on its image. They have to drop words like ‘shop,’ ‘trade,’ ‘craft,’ and ‘pressrooms.’ These are archaic terms that don’t describe the field today. The organizations are producing media; they aren’t shops. That term dates back to when every neighborhood had a fish store, a bakery, a print shop, etc.
“But it really doesn’t describe what they do anymore — it’s not a trade anymore, not a craft industry,” he adds. “It is based on science, technology, and digital imaging. If they want to attract young, talented people, they have to start talking about their companies in those terms.”
Vega stresses that printing companies also need to communicate where the younger generations are. It’s hard to even begin to have the conversation, much less get students to consider wanting to spend their lives working in the industry, without first meeting them halfway, so to speak. “Because I run the foundation, I want to post on social media what’s going on and who is involved. But I’m finding that some of the companies we’re engaging with aren’t even on social media,” she points out. “That’s a red flag if we’re attempting to reach the next generation, and that generation is all over social media. How will you show them who you are if you’re not on the platforms where they’re at right now?”
One way to go about changing the image of not just your own organization, but also of the industry in general, is to start at home. “Internally, pull together people from all different departments, generations, and educational backgrounds,” Van Sant advises. “Come up with an agenda to assess the current internal culture, and what they want it to be. What is the vision? How do the people fit into that? Long term, what kind of employees do they want to have, and what appeals to them? What will make them want to come in to work? Put some thought into that.”
Once there are answers to some of those questions, a plan can be created to ensure new people don’t run into roadblocks from the start. “It needs to be a thoughtful progression on how to move into the future,” Van Sant notes. “And that is where a lot of people get tripped up.”
The Compensation Question
In today’s market, it is almost a given that any printer looking to attract younger workers will need to offer competitive wages. Especially with the “Great Resignation” hanging over every industry, the competition for workers is fierce, and offering the bare minimum wage isn’t going to be attractive to those who likely have their pick of jobs.
But salary isn’t the only factor. Younger generations are entering the workforce assuming a living wage is the baseline — what will set you apart are the other benefits your organization offers over other competing job offers.
“If the candidates are currently employed in the industry, better hours, flexible work schedules, higher compensation, and stronger benefits could entice them,” Scalia says. “These are short-term fixes, though. Company culture is critically important in ensuring that they are attracting workers who will stay and grow with the company ... What does the career map look like for an individual? What is the employer’s work/life balance policy?”
1. Upward mobility. Make a point of having a very clear path in your company for growth and mobility. Today’s youth are looking for careers, not just dead-end jobs. They want to work for organizations where they can see themselves in three, five, 10 years or more, moving ahead career-wise. Make cross-training and opportunities for advancement an integral part of your culture.
“You have to be competitive [when it comes to compensation], but salary with these young people is not No. 1 on their priority list,” Levenson contends. “No. 1 is a sense of being able to advance and grow in the field and learn more about it — that’s more important than salary.”
2. Training matters. If a printer offers on-the-job training as a perk, that will catch the attention of younger generations, especially those looking for alternatives to traditional college. They want to work for a company that will help them learn, not just treat them as disposable cogs.
In-house training programs are investments, according to Regan. “A typical thing I hear is, ‘If I put all this time and money into training, a competitor will just steal them and then I spent all that money for nothing.’ But if everyone thought that way, then no one is trained, and we end up here,” he says. “You need to be a better organization that someone doesn’t want to leave,” and not rely on keeping them ignorant without advanced skills to keep them working in your operation.
3. Flexibility is an overlooked benefit. One thing the pandemic has taught everyone is that work/life balance and the ability to juggle both is a critical life skill. And while you can’t exactly operate a press while working from home, that doesn’t mean that flexibility can’t be a benefit that sets your organization apart.
“Production environments are hard, and I get that, but how can you think differently about it?” Van Sant asks. “Can you have shorter workweeks with longer hours?” Another option might be to allow several part-time workers to share the role of a single, full-time person, allowing them to be more flexible with hours. This opens up the workforce to those for whom a traditional workweek is challenging, and gives you a much broader pool to work from.
Be willing to throw out all the traditional thoughts about what working hours should be, and then create a schedule that truly works for your employee base.
4. Think outside the box. When it comes to benefits packages, don’t be afraid to get creative — this is where talking to your current employees to find out what they would like to see, and talking to students to get an idea of what appeals to them, can be a huge help.
Petruzalek notes that one benefit Worzalla is currently taking a closer look at is childcare. “All employers are pulling from the same bag of tricks — sign-on bonuses, retention bonuses, shift differentials — and we’re all competing with each other for the same talent. We haven’t launched anything, but we’re seriously looking at it, and hoping to create partnerships with other organizations to help solve the childcare issue.”
She continues, “We’ve also had great success with our weekend warrior program, where team members are hired to only work the weekends and they receive premium pay for doing so. It’s beneficial for the company, helps reduce overtime for existing associates, and is nice for individuals and college students who want to get a feel for the opportunity, or are looking for a little additional income without a full-time schedule.”
There is no denying that there are many roadblocks when it comes to attracting the next generation into the printing industry. But roadblocks can be overcome if the industry as a whole, and individual print services providers, are willing to be open minded and re-evaluate what elements make up a successful career in printing.
Exposing youth to the industry earlier, connecting with them where they are communicating, creating a meaningful career path they can see themselves growing with, and offering benefits that truly appeal to them, are all steps in the right direction. It isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight, but with dedication and creativity, the printing industry can become a desirable and exciting option for students for many generations to come.
Toni McQuilken is the senior editor for the printing and packaging group.