It’s no secret that recruitment and training of workers, especially those at the production level, is one of the top challenges facing the printing industry. The industry is aging, and, for a variety of reasons, isn’t attracting the talent it needs to continue to thrive. One study estimated that, before long, 36% of the workforce would be 56–65 years old.

Graphic arts programs at the high school level are critical pipelines for funneling skilled talent into the printing industry, but the number of those programs has dropped precipitously over the years. Many bemoan the fact that schools don’t see print as a relevant curriculum anymore, resulting in fewer skilled workers becoming available every year. But I would push that answer as insufficient. The question is why? Why are schools cutting back? Are they doing so because they really don’t think print-focused programs are valuable? Or is there something else at work?

As part of looking into this topic, I contacted Jeff White, director of development for the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF). High schools with graphic arts tracks have been the main feeders of new talent into the printing industry for a long time. As they are the folks on the front lines, I wanted to know: What are their experiences? What do they see as the keys to keeping that pipeline full? To help me find out, White sent out a query to a list of schools with these programs and asked them a variety of questions, including their level of enrollment, the number of students who go on from high school right into print-related careers or continue their educations at graphic arts colleges, and their opinions on what needs to be done in order for the industry to recruit more talent.

The response was immediate and overwhelming. What struck me right away was the gratitude of these teachers to have their opinions asked and their feedback sought. That, in itself, was telling—they are watching their programs shrink, and they want to protect their programs as much as printers do. They are clearly frustrated at watching this decline and, based on their experience at the earliest stages of this pipeline, they have ideas for turning it around. But whom do they tell? They told Jeff White, who told me.

First, as I wrote in a recent article “The Aging Workforce: Not Somebody Else’s Problem,” it’s important to acknowledge why this isn’t someone else’s problem to fix. To see why, let’s look at some of the numbers from these programs. Most of these schools don’t officially track who goes where after graduation, so these are primarily off-the-cuff estimates from the teachers. I picked the first 10 respondents to White’s email as representative of the entire group. Here’s where they stand.

School #1:

Starts out with 220 students. By sophomore year, enrollment drops to 60 or so. Only 20 or so end up taking the production class as a junior or senior. Less than a dozen (7–10) go on to some type of graphic arts program at the college level (graphic communications, graphic design, advertising, marketing, graphic arts). “I don't keep in touch with every student of mine, but I know I get at least two to three students every year who email me or text me that they are doing some type of graphics-related field work (screen printing, wrapping cars, graphic design).”

Let that sink in for a moment. The program starts out with a total of 220 students, with only a handful graduating and entering the graphic arts industry directly.

School #2:

Starts out with 60–70 students, divided between sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Four to six go right from high school directly to a job in the printing industry. Two to four go on to four-year schools specializing in the graphic arts.

School #3:

Starts out with about 120 students. Five or so go straight into the printing industry right after high school. “Most go directly into employment outside the printing industry, such as Wal-Mart, HEB, and local businesses.”

School #4:

Starts out with 25–30 students. A few get part-time jobs at print shops or design internships during their senior year of high school. Some continue after graduation, but typically they enroll in college. “None [of which I am aware] have decided to work full-time at a shop and forgo college.” On average, three to five seniors go on to art school.

School #5:

Class sizes average 120–130 students. About 20% of those graduate and go directly into a career in graphic arts. About 70% enter a technical school or college.

School #6:

Starts out with class of 150 students. By graduation, this has dropped to 50 students. Of these, two or three go directly into a graphic-arts-related career. Most go to college to study graphic design or print technology.

School #7:

Starts out with a class of 130 students. Only five students in this teacher’s 13-year tenure at the school have graduated and gone right into a printing company. Five to 10 go to college for some kind of graphics every year.

School #8:

Starts out with anywhere from 225 to 300 students total. About 95% are college-bound. “So a print job would be used to work their way through school. I will have one to five kids who will find this kind of work.”

School #9:

Starts with a class of 20–30 students. One year, out of 20 students, four went directly into the workforce. The rest were college-bound, with six in the field of graphics. The following year, from a class of 22, only one went directly into the industry. Four went to college. The following year, from a class of 33, none went directly into the industry at all.

School #10:

Starts out with about 20 students in Level 1, dropping to about 10 at Level 3, then dropping to about eight for Level 4. “No student to date has specifically chosen print. I have had three students go right into the graphics industry, either in digital media or web development within the past ten years. Usually, students that make it to Level 4 are serious and will seek further education.”

These numbers tell an important story. If printers are relying on graduates of graphic arts programs to fill their job pipelines, that’s a risky strategy. At the high end, the 10 schools discussed here start out with some 1,200 students each year, but the number who actually graduate from these programs is only a fraction of that. From those programs (and, again taking the highest, most generous numbers), 50 or so enter the workforce directly every year, and those are overwhelmingly related to the digital world, not production. The majority go on to four-year schools, where they are recruited at high salaries and have their pick of the best jobs around the country.

This is why many forward-thinking printers create their own apprenticeship programs. Instead of waiting until they have a job to fill, then running the risk that they won’t be able to find qualified candidates to fill it, they create their own pipelines. They work with local schools to grab eligible students, whether in a formal graphic arts program or not, and groom them from an early age. Otherwise, they risk losing them to less skilled (but more visible) jobs or other vocations where skilled labor is at a premium.

So why are these high school programs bleeding graduates into careers outside the printing industry? For insight into that, PGSF’s White asked these schools where things are going wrong and what can be done to raise print’s visibility as a viable career path. Those ideas fell into six different categories, which I will look at next time.

In the meantime, I hope the title of my earlier article “It’s Not Someone Else’s Problem” makes more sense. In this industry, the aging workforce and the dwindling pipeline of new talent is everybody’s problem, and printers facing workforce shortages (which will be all of them at some point) can’t wait to starting figuring out how to address it.