As part of my ongoing look at the issues facing the printing industry as its skilled workforce ages out (see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series), I reached out to Arnie Kahn, president of PrintLink, a recruitment firm specializing in the printing industry. In this Q&A, Arnie provides his perspective on the challenges of maintaining the pipeline of younger workers into the printing industry and where a staffing firm can (and cannot) help.

Heidi: The average age of employees in the printing industry is on the rise. Where do you see your clients struggling the most to fill positions after long-term employees have retired or otherwise aged out of the business?

Arnie: Predominantly in the skilled manufacturing positions—press operators, die cutters, and bindery operators. We are also seeing gaps beginning to open in business development. While mid- and senior-level management has held its own, staffing in other areas of the printing business is being affected by the lack of understanding of how our industry has evolved. Many younger people do not understand that the printing industry has become as technologically advanced as many other manufacturing channels. There is the perception that print is a messy and diminishing, and we need to make sure that this misunderstanding is dispelled in as many ways possible.

Heidi: How has COVID-19 impacted the situation?

Arnie: The pandemic has prompted employees who may have been looking to work a few more years to retire now. This has accelerated the exit of skilled and experienced people across the board, and not surprisingly, more and more companies are looking for help. While some areas of the industry have suffered loss of revenue, others have grown explosively. This growth is fueling a demand for talent that is outpacing the supply that our clients can find on their own.

Heidi: In areas like graphic design, sales, and customer service, aging of the workforce seem to be less of an issue. In production, it's clearly more difficult. Where are you finding it easier/harder to back-fill when people retire?

Arnie: We see the shortages most in skilled labor. While equipment manufacturers have helped the disparity through technological and automation advances, there is still a shortage of younger people entering the industry due to lack of awareness or misconception. There are also fewer graphic arts vocational and college-level programs than there used to be. While most printing companies used to have internal apprenticeship and mentoring programs, the advent of lean manufacturing, lower headcounts due to lower margins, and lack of good candidates has decimated that approach.

In sales, for instance, the individual contributor has moved from transactional model to one of selling programs. Employees in the final cycles of their careers may not be amenable to adopting new selling styles, even though they possess the product knowledge to handle that kind of sale. Salespeople in their second or third career cycles who have solution-selling skillsets don’t necessarily possess the industry knowledge to lead the sale. This is where gaps begin, and only get wider.

Frankly, though, no position in today’s environment is easy to fill. The printing industry has had to work against the oft-repeated phrase, “Print is dying.” We know this is not true, and while not growing in some segments, print is still sizable and not dying to be certain. At PrintLink, we consistently screen for talent first and specific skills second, especially in leadership and business development positions. This ensures that our clients are getting the best candidates to review and ultimately hire.

Heidi: What creative solutions have you used to help fill challenging positions? In a previous discussion, we talked about your ability to help people find jobs by moving them to new areas of the industry they might not have previously considered. Any other creative solutions you've come up with?

Arnie: The advantage we bring our clients is a consultative, highly networked business model. Transferable skills are something we are looking at quite often. In production, it may need to be more about understanding the concept rather than a specific piece of equipment. In sales, it may need to be the willingness to learn an entirely new product line. In management and leadership, it might be an opportunity to bring practices from other industries to bear on the processes our clients have in place.

Compensation models should be flexible, as well. If you have a budget for a position, but that budget is going to cause that position to sit open for six months, you must consider the cost of that decision. The cost impact of an unfilled skilled labor position can far exceed the pay and benefits of filling it. In a business development position, the unfulfilled opportunity costs could be thousands of dollars a day.

Heidi: When someone is having trouble filling a production position and you don't have someone in your pipeline that is a good fit, what suggestions do you offer your clients? After a staffing agency like yours, what is the next step?

Arnie: When trying to find skilled operators in the production areas, we experience some of the same issues our clients do. However, due to our broad network, established brand, and national scope, we typically can find candidates, although they may require relocation.

If we come up empty-handed, we recommend that the client institute training/mentorship programs internally. Our industry has long been a great place to be promoted from within in these types of positions. If there is a vacuum of good trainers/mentors, many of the equipment manufacturers provide training that can fill in the technical aspects of a program. Of course, the company will still need to ensure that there is ownership of the cultural mentorship piece somewhere in their organization.

Heidi: Is PrintLink involved in any programs or initiatives to bring younger blood into the workforce? If so, which ones?

Arnie: Dino Scalia, our managing partner, is on the board of the Graphic Communications Workforce Coalition (GCWC), a collection of concerned associations, educators, and industry representatives who have combined their efforts to represent the broad scope of the graphic communications industry. The goals of the GCWC include providing a framework for apprenticeship and training programs, recruiting new people into the industry, and retaining the existing workforce.

We are also beginning work with Ryerson College in Canada on a mentoring program. The program connects industry veterans with third- and fourth-year students in the Graphic Communications Management (GCM) program to help provide guidance and prepare the students to enter the workforce.

Heidi: Any final thoughts?

Arnie: If printers want to see the industry continue to have the influx of new talent that it will need to stay competitive into the future, I highly recommend that they find organizations like these and get involved, too. For the industry to continue to thrive, it’s going to take all of us working together.