By Pete Rivard
I write this column having just read, and reread, Frank Romano’s July 13th column, "Where Have All the Students Gone?" Aside from his title filling my head with recollections of the over-earnest, '60s melodic unctuousness that gives folk music a bad name, he again raises the pressing issue of a lack of sufficient numbers of talented kids coming into printing programs nationwide. Rather than restate Frank’s points, I encourage everyone to read his ruminations of the subject.
I began my own writing relationship with OnDemandJournal.com with a four-part series called Trolling for Students. This series detailed a number of issues related to my printing program’s efforts to overcome flat enrollment numbers in the Twin Cities market, teeming with career opportunities that we weren’t even beginning to meet. We’d graduate a couple dozen technicians with Prepress or Print & Finishing AAS degrees, all of whom would get snapped up, primarily by digital and flexographic shops, service bureaus or offset prepress operations.
Since my own first graduating class of 2000 (the year, not the number of grads), our program has placed every single graduate (emphasis on "graduate," as we have our share of slackers and dropouts) into a legitimate graphics or printing career. Because we track this kind of thing, we know where they are, what they are doing and roughly how much they’re making. Our graduating AAS student’s average starting hourly wage has increased annually with our program’s reputation from about $10.00/hr in 1999 to an inflation-beating $15.50/hr in 2007. That’s the average rate. Our superstars start between $18-$25. I could tell you stories. Some kids who sat in my class five years ago are now out-earning me, and I do OK.
Waiting Lists and the Secret Sauce
Today, I find myself in the unlikely situation of having a program that is actually filled for September. Filled! We have forty seats annually, although the college apparently accepted fifty and told us to figure it out. There’s a dozen or more waitlisted! That’s never happened before in my eight years at the college. What is going on?
Here’s our secret sauce. I don’t mind sharing, because my own college could have 100 or 150 students in it instead of the 75 or so that we now have signed up and still not satisfy the beast that is local demand for printing grads.
We started a graphic design program track two years ago. We gave up trying to single-handedly inform the local high school population about the array of cool jobs out there, while they are still in high school. That’s for the industry trade associations and the foundations to do. We understand that kids associate the phrase “graphic design” with cool, artsy careers in visually stimulating environments working alongside other cool, creative people. That’s what they want. But few of them can define what a graphic designer actually does.
Kids associate the phrase “graphic design” with cool, artsy careers in visually stimulating environments working alongside other cool, creative people. That’s what they want. But few of them can define what a graphic designer actually does.
When students visit Dunwoody, we give everybody the tour and the pitch about where our grads are working, but most stick with their original preference as a design student. Then we route all graphic design students, the prepress-inclined, and the press students in a mixed group three-month, rotation through the intro to graphic communications and design quarter. They begin to discover and experience the post design world, and find out what graphic designers do for a living. We tour a variety of very cool workplaces, some of them design agencies. We take them to offset, flexographic and digital print houses, prepress houses , photo studios, large format graphics houses, you name it.
We point out and introduce them to the Dunwoody grads on the shop floors, behind the Apple cinema displays, in the customer service kiosks, and in the executive office. Dunwoody grads in suits. Dunwoody grads in press operator uniforms. Dunwoody grads, pierced and tattooed like aborigines, Photoshopping furiously away or operating platesetters and wide format inkjets. You want to see a student’s eyes bug out? Take them to a large format graphics operation. Watch them react to really big images of really beautiful women or really big trucks. Gets them every time.
Then you point out the new trucks and sexy SUV’s in the parking lot. “Yep, that’s (insert grad’s name here) truck, son (young lady). I’m told his (her) girl(boy)friend is smokin’ hot. You ought to see his boat (her house).”
We make sure that they get their hands on actual presses, not just the digital boxes, and even bindery and finishing equipment. In the first quarter, mind you. Right away.
The second quarter is where we split the digitally inclined from the mechanically. Graphic design students are mixed with prepress The others start their study of presses, plating equipment and finishing stations. One former “graphic designer” is now our best press operator. Regarding the digital track, everybody needs to know Adobe’s Creative Suite and Quark. There’s no reason to have a graphic design section for Intro to Vector Graphics and a separate class of prepress taking the same material. Both need to know it, and both benefit from cross-discipline collaboration.
The graphic design grads go to work for places like Macy’s, Periscope, Cenveo, Southern Graphics, Alphagraphics, Vertis, etc. So do the prepress grads. They sit real close to each other.
And, since our graphic design track targets the production artist position (the AIGA doesn’t recognize anything less than a Bachelor’s as a complete graphic designer degree) which is just a slightly artier and closer-to-inception prepress role, our designer and prepress students are continually splitting apart and coming back together their entire two-year time with us. We force designers to hang with prepress and press operators and watch their work either survive the entire process or crash and burn, and then they get to do it over again until they get it right.
Before the third quarter begins, the digital students make their final decision. By then, they understand that graphic designers don’t do the cool Photoshop work out there, or produce the large format graphics. Or do the product support/consultative roles. Or get to run around and run everything. In the first two classes that have come through, the graphic design groups so far have split right down the middle and half defected to prepress. The graphic design grads go to work for places like Macy’s, Periscope, Schawk, Cenveo, Southern Graphics, Alphagraphics, Vertis, etc. The prepress grads go to work for Macy’s, Periscope, Schawk, Cenveo, Southern Graphics, Alphagraphics, Vertis, etc. And they sit real close to each other. So far, not a one has cried foul, sued us or thrown their paychecks back in our faces. It’s not bait and switch. We prefer the phrase “wait and switch”.