(This is the second part of a two-part series on high school and trade school graphic arts programs. Read part one here.)
If you’re a print service provider today, you know the fear: there just isn’t enough talent coming into the printing industry to backfill the jobs of those who are retiring. You might not need to hire anyone now, but eventually you will. When that time comes, will you be able to find the talent you need? There is a shortage of skilled workers in all verticals, and printing is no exception. Add to this that high school and trade school graphic arts programs are disappearing, and if they exist, they are focusing on digital skills such as design, web development, and IT.
What can be done to raise the visibility of the industry and attract new talent? We’ve seen some efforts from the industry at large, such as the Print Everywhere campaign and skills contests designed to create awareness of print, but let’s be honest. It’s not enough. What more can be done? To find out, I worked with Jeff White, director of development of the Graphic Arts Scholarship Foundation (GASF), to go to a little-asked but critical source of experience and perspective: the teachers of those graphic arts programs themselves. What are they seeing? What else do they think the industry can be doing to keep the pipeline of new talent flowing?
The insights from these front-line teachers are important. Based on their email responses, I’ve grouped their answers into six categories and edited them lightly for punctuation and clarity. Names of the schools and the teachers have been removed for privacy.
1. Do more to raise the visibility of print—both as an industry and as a viable career.
On this subject, these teachers spoke with one voice. If the printing industry wants to keep the pipeline of young talent full, it needs to do more to raise its own visibility. Graphic arts programs cover a wide variety of topics, teachers say, but it’s not up to them, as teachers, to convince students to go into printing as a career. What careers are available and the value of those careers is the job of printers who want to hire them.
“As an industry, we do not do a good job of advertising all of our niches and who we truly are. Can we fix this? I don't really know. For being a creative, advertising, and marketing field, we do a bad job of advertising and marketing our own industry. This is where we need to start.“
“Offset printing has never been a big attraction to any of my students. From what I see here, computer design and T-shirt printing are the biggest draw for the kids. For the past couple of years, kids have become interested in sublimation printing. With that said, most (almost all) do not really have a clear picture of jobs in this area. To improve the attractiveness of graphics, they need to know what is available.”
“Our enrollment has been down over the last decade or so. At the moment, our largest class (seniors) has 11 students. The issue we seem to have is that parents don’t realize that the printing industry isn’t dying—it’s just changing—and they tell their children that the trade is dying, too. The industry needs to make it more publicly aware how large the industry is and what the employment opportunities are.”
“I feel that pre-COVID, summer camps were a big hit and many kids were going to local colleges to take classes or do a summer camp anywhere from one to five weeks. I also think that creating a platform for graphic design and graphic arts students to compete on local, regional, and national levels would be a plus. We have been competing in FBLA in publication design and graphic design for the past several years. FBLA has been a great outlet for many reasons and has produced many students who have continued at four-year schools to study graphic communication and packaging (Clemson, RIT). I like the FBLA platform because it draws many future business students and like-minded professionals.”
“Students need to hear about success stories, where people are working and what jobs are available. They need to learn about the job market and be presented with employment numbers and what jobs are within the printing industry. They need to know that these jobs have high demand and pay well. We need to educate parents and guidance counselors on careers in the printing industry. If we could create a program for a middle school, that would help a lot.”
2. Create entry-level jobs for students once they graduate.
“The biggest issue I see is the lack of entry-level opportunities for our students. I hear all the time that companies are having trouble finding people to get into the industry. Yet when I solicit them, they don't have any jobs for them to go into. Additionally, there should be more opportunities for students to get entry-level jobs as technicians with [industry vendors such as press or bindery equipment manufacturers]. We have an online training program with [vendor] that our kids do, but I can't seem to get them to pick up a couple of kids on co-op.”
“More opportunities for internships or part-time jobs or starting apprenticeships with students from high school. These students want to step into the industry and see if that is the path they wish to take.”
“The big problem with getting more [students] into the industry is the lack of connection with local companies. When I look up printing job listings for entry-level positions, they are often far away, and most students here do not have cars. If companies made connections and had real job listings posted with schools, it would be much easier to recruit. We need to be able to show real jobs rather than just theoretical positions 30-50 miles away.”
3. More focus on the variety in the printing industry to attract younger talent.
“Most young people don't realize all of the types of jobs available in the print industry. When they think printing, they think of pressing a button on a computer and getting a printout on the other end. Showcasing modern printing applications and techniques and how companies that they are familiar with are using them would help spark interest. Creative and non-traditional printing projects would help expand their minds to think about all the possibilities. They might not be interested in hearing about a simple poster job for a mom-and-pop sporting goods store, but if Nike or Under Armor had a unique print campaign, I think students would be more invested in the subject matter.”
“Flyers about the many industry opportunities that show younger workers in the industry. It would help to have videos showing the current jobs and clean shops that hire younger people. Include a mix of diversity.”
4. Willingness to provide resources to the schools to train the next generation of talent.
“The industry needs to partner with the high schools by donating equipment and materials to work with. The industry also needs to train teachers so that we can keep up with trends, materials, and new technologies. We need a lot more support overall.”
5. Providing scholarships and resources to ease the financial burden of getting into the printing industry.
“Some of my students take advantage of scholarships, so hanging the poster that GASF sends every year is a great thing. The college guide of schools that offer some form of graphics is amazing. I use it all the time with parents to help my students locate the right school for them.”
Jeff White of GASF notes that donations to the foundation are down significantly, highlighting the particular challenge for students who might otherwise go to two- or four-year schools to further their educations but do not have the means.
6. Willingness to get involved at the legislative level.
“Education is fighting an uphill battle for the survival of printing programs. Most classes revolve around graphic design, animation, and web design. Here in Texas, we need the industry to fight for us with the Texas Education Agency. We were moved to the side as a viable skill and lost funding from the Federal Perkins Act. If your district wishes, your program can stay open using local funds only—no federal funds. We need to get printing moved back into the federal list of programs, which means we need industry to fight and show the TEA that the industry is alive and that high-wage employment is there.”
In a nutshell, these teachers say—no, they really plead—the industry needs to get more involved in its own survival. High school programs are designed to teach specific skills, not to educate students on the variety, diversity, and job opportunities in the industry. Teachers love print and want to see it survive, but their role is limited. They cannot drive students into their classrooms, and even once those students are there, their job is to teach skills, not job opportunities. For the printing industry to thrive, they say, it must be a partnership, and that partnership cannot happen without more investment from the industry itself.
What programs is your company investing in to keep its pipeline of future workers full?