Training Tech: What Keeps Us from Success?
Printing companies, like many other manufacturers, suffer from a scarcity of skilled labor. The past two decades of digital automation have reduced the need for routine manual labor, like platemaking. However, despite an increase in “lights out” production, we still need skilled operators in strategic roles throughout the plant.
Today, such workers are in short supply. To the Millennial or Generation Z person choosing a career path, print manufacturing is not a popular option. Part of the problem is the myth that printing is in decline or is not sufficiently high-tech. But another problem is our failure to provide incentives to pursue a career in print, especially over the long haul. A big part of those incentives includes a meaningful approach to training.
The Apprenticeship Model is Still Needed
For centuries, printing succeeded almost exclusively via apprenticeship training. Through the massive disruptions of moveable type, rotary presses, linecasting, and the rise of offset, the path from apprentice to journeyman was a constant. It conveyed not only practical skills but also a sense of purpose and loyalty. The apprenticeship system was at times confining, but it created relationships and an identity to be proud of.
Today, the classic apprenticeship model is all but impossible. Printers have razor-thin margins and unprecedented global competition. If they are fortunate enough to have competent journeymen in critical equipment operator positions, then their time must be prioritized for production. It’s not cost-effective for a busy operator to regularly mentor one apprentice, let alone many. The expertise of a journeyman is as vital as ever, but difficult to transfer to others in today’s printing environment. Colleges and vocational schools have fought valiantly to remedy this. But their success, unfortunately, is often outpaced by the sheer demand for highly-specialized skills.
The Opportunity of Hybrid Online + Video Learning Systems
Printing companies, like many other manufacturers, have sought relief from their skills shortage crisis through technology. Since the late 1990s, training manuals and slideshows have been replaced by the online Learning Management System or LMS. These systems offer on-screen courses, test result tracking, and other evidence of employee competence. Unfortunately, the LMS model is still based largely on the classroom metaphor, or on policy compliance, and does very little to convey the doing part of learning a complex, physical task.
An LMS approach can include animated process simulations, but these can be time consuming and expensive to produce. More importantly, in a machine operating environment, virtual models simply cannot provide the vital skills transfer achieved through actual, hands-on experience.
An effective solution to this mission-critical challenge is the use of interactive video to augment LMS content. If done well, video provides the “show” part of skills training, to supplement the “tell” elements presented in an LMS course. Moreover, since video is effective at capturing content in multiple learning paths (auditory and visual) it’s also much more efficient for developing training content than slide-based or animated simulations. Video training platforms especially well-suited for machine operators even allow for quiz questions to be strategically inserted within the video and can take the trainee back to the relevant learning moment in the video if he or she answers incorrectly. (This kind of repetition is also a remedy for the classic “forgetting curve,” or our tendency to rapidly forget over time.)
Video-Based Evaluations for Apprentice Operators
No matter how well a video-plus-LMS approach can handle the “show and tell” part, the most crucial aspect of skills training is the actual, hands-on experience. Actual practice is essential, as is some form of proof that the operator is qualified.
Traditionally, these practice sessions and certifications would be done live, with a journeyman operator observing and rating performance. However, in most cases, it is not cost-effective to send the busy journeyman to observe and evaluate each apprentice in person, especially if there are multiple locations. At the vital evaluation phase, remotely captured video can fill the gap by actually showing an apprentice’s progress and letting multiple experts rate it online. Unlike a two-dimensional checklist, video accurately documents what the apprentice has done.
Is Your Equipment Operator Skills 'Bench' Deep Enough?
Effective training, whether in-person or virtual, costs money. For those focused on quarterly sales numbers, the cost of training seems like an optional, impractical luxury. However, for a business that needs skilled equipment operators to succeed, investing in employees, by using a lean, technology-enabled approach to apprenticeship, has historically been the only way to survive. This has not changed for the printing industry. Think about the costs of losing a single, high-skill operator and not having a deep enough “bench” to replace them.
The urge to resist change is perfectly normal but it can also be wrong, as Daniel Kahneman observed in his groundbreaking book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Our instinctive and emotional responses can produce negative long-term results. But being deliberative and logical is difficult. If we have already invested in a training approach, then we are biased against trying anything different (the “sunk cost” fallacy). Our normal, “gut” reaction prevents us from altering course, even when doing so would bring a more successful outcome.
Truly effective equipment operator skills training (in-person or virtual) must take an employee incrementally through each step of a complex process. It must reinforce that learning and its list of procedures with visual examples, hands-on practice, and reinforcement. It must also uncover and incentivize potential aptitude for printing from among today’s pool of smart young professionals and demonstrate that learning and embracing new skills in this industry has a genuine career reward. If live training and/or an ordinary LMS does not deliver this result, then we must leverage other methods and technology to fashion a solution that actually works.
Our tendency to hesitate, especially when new methods and their cost pull us out of our comfort zone, is perfectly normal but it can threaten our success in the long term. When it comes to training, that impulse should always be questioned if we really want to succeed.
John Parsons (firstname.lastname@example.org), former Editorial Director of The Seybold Report, is an independent writer, ghostwriter, and editor. He is the co-author of the interactive printed textbook, Introduction to Graphic Communication, on the art, science and business of print, which has been adopted by Ryerson, Arizona State, the University of Houston, and many other schools and vocational training centers. Custom editions of the book are under consideration by major printing companies and franchises for internal training purposes.