Commentary & Analysis
Education and the Graphic Arts: What's Next?
I recently delivered the keynote speech at the Fall Conference dinner of the Printing Industry of the Carolinas (
By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: November 17, 2008
I recently delivered the keynote speech at the Fall Conference dinner of the Printing Industry of the Carolinas (PICA). While assembling my thoughts, I happened to reflect on Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive. These four words have stuck with me to this day from the time I first read them as a doctoral student 25 years ago.
Feed tomorrow, starve yesterday.
Peter Drucker always chose his words carefully. He puts tomorrow first and yesterday second. “Tomorrow” never really arrives; yet it demands constant preparation. “Yesterday” is the collective accumulation of experiences and knowledge that prepared us only for the present. There is nothing about “focusing on the present” in those four words. The present might as well be yesterday.
He said to feed tomorrow, meaning to invest in and provide resources for what will be. The decision to feed is a continuously proactive process; it is not a single act. He did not say to abandon or to forget yesterday; he said to starve it. Starvation is a slow process, and things of the past gradually drift away. The lessons are important to remember, but not, in and of themselves, enough for tomorrow.
If Drucker's call to “feed tomorrow, starve yesterday” reminds one of the economic concept of creative destruction, it should. Drucker was once a student of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, who created the term (Drucker also attended classes taught by Keynes). Industries transform: old ways are replaced by new ways, in uneasy transition. Drucker suggests hastening and intensifying the change by getting out in front of it through strong leadership. Basically, if destruction of the old is coming anyway, make it happen faster and lead the charge for the creative implementation of the new.
At Graph Expo and other locales in the last few months, I often encountered educators from technical schools through to university levels who shared common complaints:
- little or no support from administrators,
- no new equipment,
- vendors too busy or choosy with donations of equipment and time or money, and
- difficulties recruiting, retaining, and placing students.
Declining wages are being offered to craft-based graduates, and in some cases, graduates are having difficulty finding jobs. Yesterday is being starved, and it's not comfortable when it happens.
It does not help that many college administrators “know” that print is not environmentally sound. That “fact” is just assumed. Somehow, all of the electricity consumed by college computer centers, the notebook computers assigned to students, and numerous other gadgets somehow doesn't count. There is a desire on many college campuses to eliminate as much printed material as possible. This makes it hard to get support for an industry that creates printed materials in many academic settings. Why would someone three or four bureaucratic levels above a graphics program want to support an industry that is not considered “green”? From a practical standpoint, the installation of heavy printing equipment may also create insurance, regulatory compliance, and maintenance issues that administrators would prefer not to fund because those funds might have better uses elsewhere, at least in their minds.
Employment is Declining in the Latest Occupational Data
Administrators will also be influenced by Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook data released in August 2008. The data compare 2006 employment in a variety of jobs with their forecast through 2016. Print-specific jobs figures are negative. Unfortunately, many of the literature and media used to promote the industry cite data released more than two years ago, when the BLS outlook was positive, including a need for thousands of new employees every year. Now, declines in employment and numbers of printing establishments over the years have been factored into BLS projections.
There are some qualitative concerns about the employment categories BLS uses expressed by some members of our industry and educators., We can't dismiss the data because we know for a fact that the total number of workers in commercial printing is going down, as is the number of establishments (be sure to listen to next week's audio chart about this topic).
Since 1998, the number of employees in commercial printing is down by 300,000, or 30,000 per year. There are numerically enough employees to cover any aggregate shortfalls.
If we had a shortage of employees, total employment would not be declining and wages would be rising. We would likely see a significant ramp-up of capital investment by printing companies to garner more productivity from the existing workforce. Yet, capital investment has remained steady for years (decades in fact), in the range of 4.5% to 5.0% of sales and inflation-adjusted wages have been heading down. Evidence of shortages is absent.
Aggregate industry employment data are collected from the Social Security tax filings made weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually, depending on the size of the employer, separate from the Occupational Outlook data. They are quite accurate long-term accuracy, because every company with employees must report under penalty of law. Whether we like the BLS categories or not, these data represent actuality.
Keep in mind that the occupational data report also counts full time positions in-plant departments, publishing departments, and others. For example, there are 160,000 graphic designer freelancers and those who work in graphic design firms. The BLS Occupational Outlook data includes graphic designers who work in company departments, yielding another 100,000. In the list below, it's the only category that is growing.
Although there are complaints that too much academic emphasis is placed on on desktop publishing at the expense of traditional graphic production, such as learning how to operate presses and other equipment, these data reflect that schools are responding to the market, and have been taking the right approach for some time. Desktop publishing is the gateway to all electronic media, not just print.
There are, of course, many other jobs in printing businesses and departments. I did not include them in the table, but I have looked at the data. You obviously need fewer managers, executives, administrators, computer workers, and CEOs when you have fewer establishments. The declining number of printing establishments, regardless of title, is the primary cause of lower employment.
Nonetheless, we do need new employees in the industry. Just because total employment is declining by 30,000 per year does not mean that we do not need workers who are skilled in the new technologies and procedures that our industry is adopting.
Stepping Back... Where to Focus
If yesterday is being starved, what kind of tomorrow must be fed? The latest trends in our industry are fairly clear.
Printing is becoming more digital in every aspect, and that's not a surprise. Web-to-print, digital workflows, plate imaging, printing devices and process management, and postpress are more digital than ever. Postpress is the area facing the greatest digital challenges. Slow adoption of JDF and other automation does not help the situation. Graphics programs must become more saturated with information technology management, including both automation and the production of new media, highlighting integration of new media with print from strategic and tactical perspectives.
Other areas in the print supply chain are growing as specialties of their own, including print management and logistics. Companies such as InnerWorkings coordinate multiple production specialists under a single management system using computer networking and communications.
Print management courses must also focus on environmental issues, emphasizing the actualities of environmental compliance, trends in legislation, designing workflows that not only comply with laws but exceed their requirements, and anticipation of future changes. Students would study new ways of using and implementing print, and develop a proactive awareness of the role of print in what will be an undoubtedly more highly regulated business environment with a bias for electronic media.
What Do We Do About Traditional Workers?
The need for traditional workers may be declining in aggregate, but that does not mean that there are no jobs to be filled. Shortages of these workers are a sign of the destructive forces unleashed by the media shift as the industry consolidates to adapt. Yes, shortages of specific workers in a particular geography are an incentive to consolidate and to change production technologies.
Often those job openings are specific to a model or vintage of equipment. Newer equipment makes it easier to find and train employees, and the market life of equipment is shorter than ever before. Newer equipment usually has more modern computer interfaces, making it easier to learn. Even JDF, often rejected because of perceived implementation expense, is a means of reducing the number of employees required, enhancing equipment setup and achieving more output. The long-term cost of attracting, training, and retaining labor should be part of the cost justification analysis for introducing JDF automation into the operation.
Students or graduates of technical schools are often spurned by a market that needs fewer of them because there are fewer places to work and because they are often not trained on modern equipment. Where older equipment donated by suppliers or printing companies met yesterday’s training needs, it is more important to learn on new equipment today.
This means that students must find ways to be trained within printing companies that have equipment schools will never have. If the equipment is not going to the schools, the schools must go to the equipment, taking advantage of vendor demo centers or private production facilities. But unless a student is near a major city, this is not always possible and can pose a challenge to part-time students. Companies may also be reluctant to participate because of insurance issues and scheduling problems. That logjam has to be broken for the good of everyone. Perhaps one of the national multi-location commercial printers can be proactive in this area.
Scholarships, tuition, and fees for technical and undergraduate schools need to include travel to vendor demonstration and training centers where students can serve internships alongside vendor personnel. Students should also be allowed by vendors to participate in equipment installations. While the addition of a student to the process can seem like a burden or interruption to vendors and printing companies, i the employment situation is as bad as is claimed, then this is a small investment in solving the problem for their individual firms. The upside is finding a good employee.
Graphic Arts Education Must Lead the Creative Destruction Process, Not Be a Victim of It
How can we best prepare students for our future? Ultimately, we need to cultivate a sense of profession among students, even for shop floor jobs. If students graduate from a graphics program at any level without developing an inherent curiosity about the evolving business, and instead only being trained for some specific tasks, they will be greatly shortchanged.
We are in the third decade of the major shift to content creation jobs, a trend that now includes micro businesses. Of the 160,000 graphic design employees (see my note above), 90,000 of them are freelancers. The only growing part of the publishing business is small publishing. It seems that nearly everyone will spend some time as an independent worker in their careers, or will have to get used to “floating” as printing businesses close and reopen in constant attempts to adjust to conditions.
Print workers will also find themselves interfacing directly with content creation professionals in ways they never have before. More of the print production process will become automated, requiring less intervention. Not all skills can be embedded into software programs, however. Judgment and experience in the implementation of print and all media is still required.
Printing education still must provide a baseline of traditional graphic concepts and knowledge. Maneuvering through the social, technological, and economic changes create disruptions for workers, business owners, and our educational institutions and departments. The marketplace requires resilient competence and knowledge to profitably carry it through future times. Lamenting past industry practices and structures will not be a viable choice. Graphic communications programs, especially those that choose to lead the way in shedding the past and crafting the opportunities of tomorrow, will play a crucial role in our industry's survival.
Items of Interest
Michael Josephowicz, former faculty member of Parsons The New School for Design, posted an interesting comment to a new potential worker at PrintCEOBlog.
Charles Murray has written Real Education, a critique of the overemphasis on general college education when certifications and technical training are what are needed but unnecessarily disparaged. The industry we know today was built by post-WW2 veterans and high school educated workers, many of whom started in unions and aspired to own their own businesses. Spunk can't be taught; but it can be discouraged or cultivated. We need a sweep of entrepreneurial spirit to come through the industry, people who are inclined to act, and not hunker down when tough times occur.