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Dr. Joe Speech at IGAEA, Eastern Kentucky University

Thank you and good morning.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: July 27, 2009

Thank you and good morning. "Thank God it's Monday." The long-time leader of Pitman Company, John Dreyer, used to encourage people to say "Thank God it's Monday" because there's another week ahead to move the agenda forward, especially while others are lamenting the end of the weekend. For the printing industry, this has to be our new Monday. Nothing can be taken for granted. Rules are being rewritten. The old guard and the old ways of doing things are being unceremoniously plowed out of the marketplace. It's a new era of communications where print is one player among many. Our place in the communications market is definite but the nature and scope of that role is not certain.

The opportunities for communications students and workers will be vastly different, involving creativity and imagination in the management and deployment of those messages, not just the tasks involved in giving the ideas their shape and form of design. As an industry, we have never had to deal with the issues of connectedness they way we do today, except amongst ourselves.

The reputation of the printing industry as being resistant to change is undeserved. This industry went

  • from letterpress to offset,
  • from hot type to cold type to desktop publishing,
  • from craft-based prepress to digital prepress to digital photography and imaging,
  • from film-based image assembly to pagination,
  • from film-based platemaking to direct-to-plate,
  • from offset to digital printing, a change that is still ongoing, and is likely to intensify two or three years from now...

... and those are only the changes in my 30+ year career.

Throughout this process, however, the changes altered the costs, flexibility, and turnaround of print.

In the late 1970s, color scanning reduced the costs of color separations, and lowered the barriers to using color. That stimulated the business at a time when advertisers and publishers enjoyed the benefits of many production improvements that allowed them to catch the prime earning years of baby boomers with direct marketing, magazine advertising, newspaper inserts, and numerous other printed materials.

This time, it's different. This recession is the first I am aware of, where as an industry we did not have a technological upheaval that stimulated the demand for print. This recession, we are naked in the marketplace, as the major technological changes are occurring outside of our business, in the world of digital communications, displacing not just print volume, but the interest in printed materials. Even advertising supported media, such as magazines and newspapers, are having their business rationales undermined by new media. Just think: in an average Internet hour, 16% is spent on social media, when three years ago, it was 0%. Last year, broadband in homes increased to the point where consumers had more Internet time than businesses.

Let's take a look at a few charts...

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In this era, print's use can't be assumed, because there are many competitors, and the content owners are no longer in control, but those content users gain more power and freedom every day. Content users are driven by urgency, convenience, and expedience. Content creators don't know when or how their content will be viewed, so they now have to be ready for anything. This juxtaposition of power among communications participants is not well understood, and not even the geekiest of teenagers can explain it yet.

This means that students in graphic communications need to be ready for anything, too. They need a strong core of knowledge and skills that will give them insight, managerial capabilities, and resilience. It is more likely than ever that today's graphic communications graduates will spend the bulk of their careers as freelance, independent workers, even the non-designers.

Last year, we "time-traveled" back to the 1986 printing industry. U.S. commercial printing employment went below 600,000, to a level not seen in 32 years. Commercial printing employment peaked in mid-1998, almost reaching 830,000. It's been quite a change. What we are seeing are the still-widening ripples from the personal computer and desktop publishing revolutions of 25 years ago.

Back in 1987, there were 70,000 employees in prepress trade shops. Today, there are 25,000 with most of them in some high-level publishing workflow, with nary a sense of what platemaking, separating, or typography was or might have been.

In 1987, there were 176,000 employees in book, magazine, and miscellaneous publishing; there are almost 300,000 today, despite the recession, augmented by another 50,000 or so micropublishing entrepreneurs.

Desktop publishing reduced the costs of production and stimulated the content creation process, and was a critical component of the march of new media. In 1987, about 52,000 employees worked in graphic design firms then, with another 4000 or so as freelancers. Today, there are about 70,000 employees in graphic design firms, plus another 90,000 freelancers, more than three times 1987's level.

Even advertising employment is higher. There are about 35,000 more workers in advertising today than in 1987.

While commercial printing employment is now at mid-1980 levels, publishing, design, and agencies have added more than 250,000 workers in the last 20 years. Not all of them are creative workers, of course. Without the ability to create content efficiently, however, even those workers who are not in content creation or content production positions owe their jobs to the creation process that is the reason for their employer's existence.

It is curious that the 230,000 loss in print workers in the last ten years is almost the same as the 250,000 new workers in content creation industries, isn't it?

There is another important point. The new workers are more inclined to be freelance professionals, working as sole practitioners, than ever before. A $10,000 Mac workstation today is a powerful production tool, capable of producing sophisticated, high quality media in almost any format, including audio, video, and animation. They're not always working alone, however. These workers are more likely to be working on a project basis rather than with a single employer, linked with other independent professionals, each with a unique expertise. Modern telecommunications and the Internet are only a hint of what is to come. Printing organizations, and our educational institutions need to recognize this empowered freelance revolution.

I am often asked what would draw more young people to the printing industry. I have always heard the same tired recommendations in my 30 years in the business, and we know they don't matter. They wouldn't be old and tired if they worked.

There is only one thing that does it: successful, dynamic, profitable, and growing companies that do interesting and exciting things, and are aggressive promoting it.

One of the attractions to content creation businesses is the newness that is the essence of their projects: there is always some aspect of the content that has never been done before. Creating content, even in its necessary repetitive production tasks, is more attractive to young workers. Working as freelance plays into millennial generation themes of independence, time flexibility, and geographic freedom.

And besides that, all of the new gadgets, the iPhones, the Kindles, and others, are fertile territory for young minds. Back in my day, we'd call them "cool," but I'm not old enough to call them "groovy."

Manufacturing by its nature may not be able to compete with that. Quality control programs, for example, are designed to create a repetitive and predictable sameness of results without regard to content. Small print businesses may not be able to compete with the attraction to the content creation businesses unless its owner or management is somewhat charismatic, emanating a sense that the risk of tagging along will be worth it in the long run.

The question is whether our industry's entrepreneurial spirits will create, individually and collectively, that successful, growing, dynamic, and intriguing culture that attracts workers and capital for these decades ahead.

Disturbing to me over the years has been the insistence that our industry needed 60,000 new workers a year. The economics tell us otherwise. 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.

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. 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. (Sometimes I think we need 500,000 of them). Just because total employment since that late 1990s peak 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. We need the new employees to work in our new markets.

There is growing need for workers with computer experience in graphic arts environments. Printers often tell me that they never thought they would be hiring programmers in their production departments; they never thought they'd hire more than one! Ours is a somewhat unique environment, just like our workflow is. Using and managing sophisticated MIS and workflow systems in a small business production environment, where most jobs are different or quirky, pose interesting challenges and requires unique talent and knowledge.

Printing is becoming more digital in every aspect. 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 has not helped the situation, but that will change because the choice not to is deadly.

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, not just production.

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 anticipate 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 deep bias for electronic media.

The biggest need will probably be in workers capable of managing the deployment of communications content across multiple media to segmented audiences, especially in service of small and mid-size businesses.

Businesses of all sizes will be looking to outsource many outbound information initiatives to keep headcounts down and gain access to more productive methods. This is an area where print businesses should apply their entrepreneurial resources.

When I mentioned deployment, earlier, I was referring to the simultaneous deployment of content, the fullness of the dream of cross-media. Cross-media for most of the years has been serial and mildly parallel deployment of content. When the audience is in charge of deciding how and when and in what format they want to access information, the content creator has a challenge that outside resources like print businesses can play a significant and profitable role.

How can we best prepare students for our future? 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.

A professional always seeks to learn, on their own, sharing their knowledge and experience with others, without requiring outside motivation, and is the employee who asks for more experiences, and the freelancer who seeks jobs that challenges and expands their skills.

We are in the third decade of the major shift to content creation jobs, a trend that now includes micro businesses. With almost 70% of graphic designers being freelancers, and the only growing part of the publishing business is small publishing, nearly every graphic arts graduate will spend some time as an independent worker in their careers, some from the outset, or will have to get used to “floating” as printing businesses close and reopen in constant attempts to adjust to conditions.

This won't just be on the content creation side. The idea of "local" printing business is falling by the wayside as online job submission, even via iPhones, becomes common. Commercial printers will find themselves becoming specialty printers, as mainstream printing continues to shift to digital formats on handheld devices, leaving us little mainstream left. Many workers will connect to print businesses and do their jobs online, as they work in geographic areas of their choosing.

After all, the print business will be changed. The new printing business will be quite different than what we are used to and will be actively involved in

  • content creation
  • content deployment
  • project management
  • proactive in media strategy, especially for micro-, small, and mid-size businesses
  • digital media of all types, and whatever that comes to mean
  • highly automated, especially in our smaller shops, which will be new in our industry
  • output diversity, with numerous media, formats, and ability to output in remote locations
  • networked with production and other workers, with their clients, and even to the client's target audience
  • built for outsourcing, to deal with client needs as they take over some previously internal functions

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 to "fix" things. Not all skills can be embedded into software programs, however. Judgment and experience in the implementation of print and all media is still required, and the way media are used changes almost every day.

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. Students still need a strong core.

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.

Make sure the students know that these are exciting and disruptive times, and that whatever they do to prepare themselves will pay off if they plan to nurture the skills needed. Teach them to have high expectations for themselves, to have a desire to work independently as a long term goal. Advise them that their value as an employee and as a professional is based on the kinds of new ideas and reliable performance that delights clients and builds the client business.

The greatest reward of teaching is to see students be independently successful, to have them do things that we know we could not have done ourselves, but that we played a role in making possible.

While our industry has that reputation of resisting change, we can't forget that over 500 years, print changed the world. We want our students, and our educational institutions to have the reputation for creating change. The time for this leadership is now, as our industry falls into the chaos of a vastly different marketplace, where some of the companies considered as "cutting edge" and "getting it" are closing. The new print business knows that the old rules are always broken and new rules have yet to be written. Education has always been about opportunity, and this is our chance to live up to and inspire that standard.

Thank you very much, and I greatly appreciate the invitation to speak.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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