The Printing Industries Alliance has released a new in-depth report, “Recruitment, Retention, and Pathways to Employment in the Printing Industry” (April 2022), that looks at the realities of the hiring gap in the printing industry and practical solutions for addressing it. The report contains both good news and bad news. The good news is that there are solutions. The bad news is that if you’re looking for a magic bullet, there isn’t one.

“Pathways to Employment,” which contains many in-depth interviews, takes a look at both the challenge and the many creative solutions printers and others have come up with to address it. Although each strategy is different, they have one thing in common: these companies aren’t waiting for someone else to do the work for them. They understand that they can’t wait, and they are taking initiative to do it themselves.

Of course, this is a monumental undertaking, and the payoff can take years. It takes patience, persistence, and fortitude. The right time to have gotten started was several years ago, but if you didn’t, now is a pretty good time, too.

Waiting for the Pay-Off

First, let’s look at why it’s worth making that investment. The reason is simple: you’re not going to escape the employee shortfall. You can close your eyes and say, “We’re all good. We’ll deal with it when it happens.” However, printers who take this attitude are finding that, when it does happen (and it will happen), things don’t just magically fall into place. You can’t “will” employees to show up out of thin air. It takes work, including laying a foundation long before that need actually arises.

The Printing Industries Alliance has been tracking this issue for some time. In a 2021 survey of alliance members, 70% of respondents acknowledged having labor shortages that are affecting their businesses. Among these, annual turnover is a whopping 14% (which means that in many companies, it’s much higher). Respondents reported that, on average, they had been unable to fill 36% of their open positions for more than a year. This isn’t just production positions. It spans the organization, including administrative positions and customer service.

What are printers doing to combat this shortfall? Here are their approaches in a nutshell:

1. Set up their own apprenticeship programs.

Printers serious about keeping their pipelines full are making a long-term investment in developing apprenticeship programs. While this is a lot of work, the good news is that, in some cases, the hardest work has been done for you. The report notes that three printing industry apprenticeship programs—bindery, customer service, and wide-format—have been set up by the Pennsylvania Project, for example, and are being made available to anyone in the industry who wants to replicate them. The programs consist of 2,000 hours of on-the-job training with specifi­ed pay increases occurring at various stages of progress.

2. Look outside traditional communities.

The tough reality is that many young American workers don’t want to work hard. It’s easier to get a job for $15 per hour at Burger King than it is to work a long day running a printing press for the same pay. Rather than try to convince high school graduates that working hard is better than not working hard, some printers are looking to communities of people who are willing to do the work, including immigrant populations. The report gives the example of one printer that tapped into a local community of residents from Myanmar. Not only have those employees worked out well, but because this is a close-knit community, the company has been able to hire many friends and family members of those employees, as well. Look for organizations in your community that serve as advocates for immigrants and refugees.

3. Be willing to pay more, including offering referrals and signing bonuses.

Traditionally, printers have been resistant to raising wages due to the thin margins in the industry. But seriously, you can’t pay the same rate as Burger King or the Solo Cup factory (in Easton, Md., near where I live, the Solo Cup factory is advertising starting wages at $19 per hour) and expect employees to be flocking to your door. The report observes some success among printers willing to pay more in terms of a starting wage, as well as offering referrals and signing bonuses for employees who stick around for a specific period of time.

4. “Age-accommodating” workspaces.

Combat the challenge in hiring by making it easier for older employees to stick around. Invest in higher levels of automation such as automated systems for cutting, jogging, and stacking in the bindery to reduce stress on older employees and enable them to stay on the job longer.

5. Engage with the Mariano Rivera Foundation.

I’ve written about the Mariano Rivera Foundation several times, and “Pathways to Employment” is promoting its benefits, as well. The foundation’s Print, Design, and Packaging Development (PDPD) program has been opening doors to high-quality job opportunities in print through support from industry vendors such as Atlantic Tomorrow’s Office, EFI, Ricoh, Konica Minolta, Adobe, Idealliance, and more. In-depth training is provided to under-served youth selected for the program (along with the opportunity to earn professional industry certifications), and the first graduates are now available for hire. The flagship PDPD program in Gainesville, Fla., has been such a success that the foundation is looking to open satellite training offices, including one already set up at Premium Color Graphics in Carlstadt, N.J., and guess who will get first crack at these highly trained graduates? Have space in your building to offer a home to a satellite program? Contact Lisa Vega, executive director of the Mariano Rivera Foundation. Even if you’re not a host location, the Mariano Rivera Foundation’s PDPD program and its pipeline of available candidates is a great resource and is just getting started.

6. Creating your own vocational pipeline.

There are a variety of ways to develop your own vocational pipelines. Work with local high schools and trade schools to funnel students directly into employment after their schooling is complete. Students are much more likely to enter the printing industry (and your workforce pipeline) if you already have established relationships with them. Contact the guidance counselors at local high schools and offer to bring students on campus for tours. Suggest setting up a work-study program. Offer hands-on training. School guidance counselors are your doors to reaching students trying to figure out what their post-high-school career path looks like, but they aren’t going to send students your way unless you reach out to them.

7. Tap available training options.

Many of the other options involve training unskilled employees and turning them into skilled employees, whether that transitioning temp workers into full-time positions or bringing in newcomers to the industry. This is made easier by working with established print training and certification programs such as the Print[ED]-accredited training programs in Maryland and Georgia, which support an initiative known as PrintSIP, an adult training program for print operations. Work with local colleges with graphic arts programs to provide additional training alongside the hands-on training you provide. (The PIA cites the Packaging School at Clemson University as a good example.)

Whatever steps you take, employees aren’t going to come your way on their own. You have to go get them. More than that, you have to develop them. That takes time, persistence, and effort, and the successful companies make investment. Employees aren’t going to materialize out of thin air, so don’t wait. What is that old saying? “The best time to get started was yesterday. The second-best time is now.”

To download a copy of the report “Recruitment, Retention: the Reality and the Response,” click here.