During the COVID-19 pandemic, printers have been classified as essential businesses. While other businesses have been forced to shut down, printers have been allowed to remain open. What has this done to hiring? Is this a good time to find a job? Switch jobs? To find out, I spoke with Arnie Kahn, president of PrintLink, a placement service for the printing industry.

Heidi Tolliver-Walker: You have a unique vantage point on how these lockdowns have impacted hiring and placement in the printing industry. What are you seeing?

Arnie Kahn: First, I want to say that as soon as it became clear how extensive the challenge would be, we sent a letter to all of our candidates and the companies we’ve served expressing our concern for their safety. That is first and foremost.

Second, from a professional perspective, many printers are continuing to operate because they are considered essential businesses. However, many of them are closed due to lack of work. Even many of those that are open are struggling and can’t man all of their equipment because their employees are calling in sick. Others are concerned about the employees who do come in because of inadequate COVID-19 testing. It’s a very antsy time for everyone.

HTW: What has it been like for you at PrintLink? Are companies still hiring?

AK: Right now, few companies are. Most of what we are doing is taking in new candidates as they get laid off or are furloughed. It’s a bit of whiplash. We went from a very robust hiring labor market to being nearly totally on pause. Before the crisis, loads of companies were asking us for personnel, but now they are in a holding pattern. They still have every anticipation of bringing people on board, but it won’t be until we start to fire up the engines of the economy again.

HTW: What are people doing in the meantime?

AK: For some people, this is a time of career evaluation. For some, they just want to make a change. Maybe they have the skills or experience to move from commercial print to packaging or into the wide-format industry and want to try something new. Or, even if they stay in their market segment, some [furloughed candidates] may not intend to go back to their employers because they are concerned about the company’s long-term financial viability after this crisis is over. So we have two focuses right now: 1) strengthening our talent pool so that when companies are looking to hire with more intensity, they have the deepest possible pool to choose from; and 2) helping candidates who are interested in making a change figure out the best way to do that.

HTW: Is there a silver lining here?

AK: Before all this happened, it was tough to find top talent because of the tight labor market. But now, with so many of our industry’s top talent back in the labor pool, companies have an incredible opportunity to hire people who might not otherwise have been available.

HTW: Long-term, do you see this crisis changing the printing industry in any way?

AK: Nobody can be clairvoyant, but we have to remain positive that once the pandemic lifts, companies will start getting rolling again. I applaud those who have ability to switch to making face shields or other protective equipment for healthcare providers. Many companies have been able to adapt and help in a crisis, and it’s been wonderful. My concern is for companies that weren’t all that strong financially and had just starting to rebuild their financial strength before this happened. I hope they find the strength to withstand this.

HTW: You said that people were using this opportunity to re-evaluate their careers. Are there segments of the printing industry you see as benefiting most when we pull out of this crisis?

AK: The majority of people stick with what they know. We place primarily middle to senior level management—CEOs, operations and plant managers, sales managers, and other administrative and executive level employees—many of which have global or expansive knowledge of the industry and are able to adapt to multiple industry verticals. They have the most flexibility. But companies aren’t training people to make switches. They want to make hires right out of the gate who can be productive because they don't have the personnel to train them. For those who don’t have the skills, it will admittedly be difficult.

HTW: Do you see many of these people moving to different areas of the industry?

AK: Most will stay in their areas of expertise, but there will be situations where people have a background in both, who are more versatile and can cross into new areas. It will be more difficult for those who are press operators or other hands-on technicians who want to make a transition but have to retrain.

HTW: Are there areas of the industry you expect to see hiring bounce back more quickly than others?

AK: As long as the economy starts to heat up again, I see packaging being a very strong, consistent area. Direct mail, of course, especially personalized in healthcare, financial, and pharmaceutical sectors, which are doing more and more targeting. I also wonder about a resurgence of catalogs. All forms of print, including catalogs, have always driven people online. Even before the pandemic, retailers were streamlining their in-store offerings to the most popular items and selling everything else online. This pandemic may only accelerate that shift. If that continues, catalogs could become an even more important part of the mix as companies place greater emphasis on exposingcustomers to their full range of inventory. Another category I’m watching is large-format visual signage. If brick-and-mortar sales don’t bounce back to where they were, and more and more inventory goes online, I wonder how that will affect the demand for in-store graphics.

These are just some of the ways that this pandemic could affect how print spend is allocated going forward. Right now, it’s all speculation. We’ll have to wait and see.