There was recently a post on the Print Industry Networking Group message board on LinkedIn that asked the question, “If you could start over would you still choose a printing related field?” I’m not sure if it is the overall struggling U.S. economy or just the challenges facing the printing industry, but I have also been thinking a lot about this exact question. Over the past six years I have worked for one print industry supplier in two different capacities, first as a trainer for the vendor’s production workflow now as a presales product demonstrator. The constant technological evolution within the industry and the knowledge base of my peers have, by far, been the highlights during this time.
The industry, as a whole, continues to struggle with shedding the bounds of its craftsman past to move forward into a manufacturing future. There are many issues that are causing this identity crisis. One of the more severe problems is with recruitment and retention of personnel, in all functional areas of printing, that will lead the industry into a brighter future. Print must reverse the stigma of being out of touch, out of date, and out of favor, as compared with other industries that capture the attention of the new workforce. This task is enormous and enormously important.
I gained an education in printing from one of a handful of four year universities that even offer such a degree. Six years later, half of my friends that graduated from the same program have gone on to other pursuits. Outside of the handful of higher educational institutions (Clemson University, RIT, etc.), most of the industry training is sponsored by the equipment manufacturers and software vendors. The homegrown apprentice programs of the past have been put to rest due to the associative time and costs of the programs. Since the burden of training has shifted to the industry suppliers, the training is narrowly focused on singular tasks – how to print the job, how to prep files for proof/plates, etc. The general knowledge base for printing has therefore become highly segmented and specialized.
These young, eager graduates face an ever changing industry after graduation. I have observed a steady trend of consolidation and downsizing during my career in printing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, who maintains a healthy repository of all measurable industry demographics, shows that the total employment for the printing industry declined over 20% from 2000 to 2006. The BLS also projects a further decline near 12% by 2016. Some of this attrition has been caused by gains in technology and automation, but more job losses have stemmed from industry output declines and industry consolidations. Considering such a bleak outlook on overall employment, printing firms must use creative solutions to recruit and retain the now graduating labor pool.
Recruiting a younger workforce is a paramount requirement for the long term health of the industry. From my experience, the industry consists of an aging labor pool with an average age above 35. After six years with my company, I am still one of the youngest technical employees. In the vacuum left by the apprenticeship programs, the workforce aged and the knowledge transfer from the older to the younger generation stopped. Although the overall employment numbers are in decline, an infusion of younger employees is still needed, otherwise the industry labor pool can not be sustainable.
In an effort to attract new talent to print, we as an industry must examine the hiring procedures of other industries that are competing in the same marketplace. The total benefits package including salary must be competitive with other popular industries. Printing companies could add more flexible working conditions to bolster their overall position such as flex time or telecommuting, if possible. Companies could also re-examine restrictive HR policies. Generation X&Y are technology enthusiasts who meld the line between work and personal time. Instead of perceiving this as a threat to productivity, consider the overall availability and responsiveness that is given during off work hours. A Gen Y can be a valuable contributor to the organization when armed with a smartphone and a laptop when considering their propensity to using social media to work more efficiently.