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Commentary & Analysis

The new printing workforce

The printing industry bemoans its inability to attract workers.

By Frank Romano
Published: November 21, 2008

The printing industry bemoans its inability to attract workers. It ain’t seen nothing yet.

Many of the job positions printers claim are unfilled are for operators of legacy equipment. This equipment tends to be older, where a trained worker has retired or moved to another company where their experience on that equipment might be better rewarded because they already have the requisite skills.

At the same time, automation is growing. CTP forced the printing industry to implement totally digital workflows and wiped out the stripping department and stripping skills. Digital printing devices integrated significant levels of automation to control virtually every aspect of production. New technology has changed the printing industry and thus changed the skillsets required.

Neither the industry, or our associations, or our educational institutions is keeping pace.

It is traditional for printing companies to fill positions by hiring employees from other printing companies. This is one of the reasons for the reluctance to provide training. One printer expressed the oft-held position “Why train them for my competitor.” In 1997, a local printer complained to the president of RIT because one of our graduates that was hired could not do paste up.

A review of the high-profit printers shows one common factor ?they invest in training. Internal training is the primary method used to provide skillsets to employees ? at 39.7 percent of all printers. Supplier-based training is next at 36.4 percent. Three quarters of printers believe that the skillsets of potential employees are inadequate to meet their company’s needs. Yet, only 20.8 percent reported that would be increasing their training budgets.

Old skillsets

The skillsets of the “old” craft-based printing industry are now mostly “shrink-wrapped” ? they are functions within programs that perform automatically what human skill and action once performed or they are integrated into systems provided by suppliers. Traditional skillsets have either disappeared or been integrated into other operations. The craft is still there, but is is now a program or machine function: Typesetter, Pasteup Artist, Trapping Specialist, Scanner Operator, Dot Etcher, Cameraperson, Film Stripper/Proofer, and Platemaker. These positions have been lost to automation and workflow integration. Digital workflows have been most responsible for the elimination of analog skillsets.

Crossover skillsets

Skillsets common to the “old” world of printing and the “new” world of printing: Designer, Preflight Technician, Image Specialist, Prepress Specialist, Salesperson, CSR, Estimator, Planner, Scheduler, and Bindery Specialist.

New skillsets

The new functions and skillsets of the digital world are mostly based on IT ? Information Technology. They involve programming and computer-related skills: Database Analyst, VDP Specialist, Digital Asset Specialist, Digital Printing Technician, Quality/Environmental Specialist, IT Specialist, Networking Specialist, Distribution Specialist, and Marketing Specialist.

The IT connection

A skills ‘gap’ implies an area where individuals within an existing workforce have lower skill levels than are necessary to meet business or industry objectives, or where new entrants lack the skills required for them to perform effectively. A skills ‘shortage’ is where there is a lack of adequately skilled individuals in the labor market. In the printing industry, we have both a skills gap and a skills shortage. New hiring by job functions:

Customer service 13.66%
Estimating and planning 5.74%
IT (MIS) 1.37%
IT (workflow, network functions) 6.56%
IT (database functions) 6.01%
IT (web functions) 3.55%
IT (Digital asset management) 2.19%
IT (Variable Data Printing) 6.01%
Prepress (preflight, applications, imaging) 11.48%
Printing (offset press operation) 12.11%
Printing (digital printer operation) 12.48%
Management (production, other) 4.10%
Sales/Marketing 12.30%
Other functional areas 2.46%

Customer service hiring was the highest, because of the turnover in this area. But note that about one quarter of all new hiring in the printing industry involves IT-based functions. Some printers do not always define these skillsets as IT-based.

Digital printing and offset press hiring are now almost equal (12.11 percent for offset and 12.48 percent for digital).

Much of the hiring remains in the area of legacy skills. If some printers continue to retain older equipment, they will continue to face shortages of operators for that equipment and these shortages will exacerbate over time. Without the automation and quality-enhancing features of newer systems, these devices will no longer be able to meet buyer requirements.

Finding a solution to skill shortages requires a strategic, coordinated response from industry, the enterprise itself, and educational/training organizations. Industry needs to provide a long-term action plan; enterprises must promote solutions within the workplace; and education/training providers must broaden their approaches to traditional training.

Proactive employers in the printing industry are addressing skill shortages with strategies that include:

   1. introducing new technology to reduce the need for highly qualified staff
   2. insisting that equipment and system providers update the content and delivery of their training
   3. working with educational institutions to modify curricula

A core issue is a mismatch between the training currently being given and the skills actually required to compete successfully in the new printing industry environment:

    * improvements in the productivity of printing businesses brought about by technology advances
    * changes in demand for traditional print products
    * the cannibalization of traditional print products by other media (electronic substitution)
    * technological sophistication of new equipment that does not require traditional apprenticeships

Successful printing companies are not of a particular size; they have robust internal IT capability and invest in training. They embrace both.

IT people and systems engender differentiation and differentiation engenders new profit streams.

But, here is the rub. If the future employee of a future printing company is going to be IT-based, then the printing industry will be competing with every other industry for such employees.

A recent video was created to attract people to printing. In one segment we see hourly rates scrolling down the screen. That will really help to get high school college grads into our industry. We have so many groups trying to do something that the result is to accomplish nothing.

The heart of the skill shortage problem is that the printing industry lacks both a far-reaching vision and a long-term strategy for dealing with future workforce requirements.

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.



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