Whenever printers and trade shops “cluster” in factory buildings and industrial parks, the shared gain in efficiency is greater than the sum of the parts. It turns out that clustering also is the ideal way for colleges and universities to exhibit at printing trade shows. By standing shoulder to shoulder in “Education Alley,” a cap-and-gown corner of Graph Expo 2008, schools with graphic studies programs powerfully leveraged their common message about the value and the urgency of training the industry’s next generation of appropriately skilled professionals.

Several not-for-profit organizations that promote graphics education also took part in Education Alley, a string of adjacent pipe-and-drape booths on the far west side of McCormick Place South. Although the presentations were simple, the possibilities for visitors in search of career-advancing knowledge were rich and numerous. The exhibitors, who all praised the Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC) for setting aside the space, gained knowledge of their own by networking and comparing notes on the state of higher learning for graphic communications.

We spoke with most of the exhibitors and with others who spent time in Education Alley, and those conversations are recapped below. Here, as we see it, were the important take-aways from the academic show-within-a-show of Graph Expo:

• The industry needs many more graduates than schools with graphic studies programs are training. As will be seen, despite the best efforts of the Education Alley exhibitors and their counterpart institutions, the small base of colleges and universities offering this kind of instruction are not producing graduates in the numbers that replenishing the industry’s aging workforce will require. The problem, as always, is the undervalued image of the industry that the schools are training people to join.

• Attracting students to graphic studies programs remains as difficult as ever. Although the Education Alley exhibitors reported being at or near immediate capacity in terms of enrollment, all said that they could be serving more students if there were more students to be served. The appeal for careers in graphic communications is not being heard at the “feeder” schools on which the college programs depend for applicants.

• There’s no longer such a thing as a “degree in printing.” Recognizing the impracticality of teaching printing in isolation from other graphic media, every one of the Education Alley schools has blended non-print media into its degree tracks. They agree that today, a degree concentrating only in traditional printing would be next to useless.

• A college-level graphics program instructor or administrator is many things, but above all, a good marketer. Everyone we met in Education Alley makes a part-time job of promoting graphic study programs both internally, to sometimes-skeptical university management; and externally, to feeder schools and industry supporters. As one professor observed, “Math teachers don’t have to do it”—but printing teachers do.

Here’s more of what the educators shared with us.

1,000 Graduated; 60,000 Needed

Ted Ringman, vice president of development, Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation, worked with GASC to organize Education Alley. He noted that because the exhibiting schools don’t compete geographically, clustering them increased their visibility and visitor traffic without stirring recruitment rivalries.

Ringman worries about the continuing decline in enrollment among graphic arts study programs and its implications for employment. He says that roughly 4,000 students now are enrolled in two- and four- year degree programs at about 220 U.S. colleges with graphic technology curricula. Together, says Ringman, these schools will produce about 1,000 graduates next year—a fraction of the 60,000 entrants that the industry will need annually through 2016 to meet its need for skilled employees. Thus, there is a huge need to attract more students to these programs.

According to Ringman, the schools with rising enrollments are those that have expanded their graphics teaching to include other media. It’s no longer realistic, he says, to teach printing without reference to non-print alternatives. Graphic design, likewise, must be taught in the context of every medium that uses graphics.

Leaders Lead by Training

Bill Garno is the director of the Printing Applications Laboratory at Rochester Institute of Technology (Rochester, NY). Besides conducting applied research and testing, the Printing Applications Laboratory offers educational outreach programs. These take the form of open-enrollment seminars on the RIT campus or customized programs offered either at RIT or at the requesters’ sites.

Garno says that there has been a decline in demand for the public programs at RIT as travel and productivity lost to classroom time become harder for companies to justify. On-site customized training is less vulnerable because requests for it usually are tied to a specific objective that management wants to achieve.

According to Garno, the industry’s stronger companies realize that because they will be trying to accomplish more things with fewer people, those people will have to be more comprehensively trained. Like RIT’s academic programs, the Printing Applications Laboratory’s outreach training covers non-print as well as print media. Garno says that the non-print mindset is becoming more mainstream in the graphic communications field and that customers increasingly will expect their print providers to display that knowledge.

“The Most Taken-for-Granted Industry”

Pat Klarecki, professor and department chair of the Printing & Imaging Technology Management program at Ferris State University (Big Rapids, MI), calls enrollment in the program “stable” if not completely full. The problem for graphic arts educators, as he sees it, is that “there’s just not enough positive exposure” for the field or the employment opportunities it can provide. “We’re the most taken-for-granted industry in the country,” Klarecki says.

Since April, he has been doing his own marketing by maintaining a database of everyone he knows who has expressed interest in graphic arts careers. Each month, these potential enrollees get a personalized postcard that advertises the program. They also will receive personalized URLs directing them to a web site with a career-promoting video and other helpful information.

The Ferris State program offers a bachelor’s degree in printing management, an associate degree in printing and digital graphic imaging technology, and a bachelor’s degree in new media printing and publishing. The new media degree, says Klarecki, was the first of its kind in the country when it was introduced in 1999.

Advice from One Who Knows

Larry Zabinski, an instructor of digital photography in the Graphic Arts Technology program at Harper College (Palatine, IL), is a former journeyman stripper for such notable companies as World Color Press and Quebecor. He worked in the printing industry for 37 years before breaking into education six years ago, and he has been teaching digital photography at Harper College for the last three.

Zabinski remembers borrowing money to buy an early-model personal computer at a time when many of his co-workers still failed to see desktop publishing as the transformational technology it ultimately would prove to be. Today he tells his students that as job-seekers, they must possess much more technical knowledge than he did when he first entered the trade. “You’ll be going to school for the rest of your lives,” he counsels them.

Zabinski says he also believes in teaching printing in a multimedia context because “we’re now a visual communication industry” where all of the output options are intertwined.

Perhaps the only thing that has not changed over the course of Zabinski’s long career is printing’s uninspiring track record in recruitment. “This industry, in all my years, has done the poorest job of promoting itself,” he declares.

Promotion in Perpetual Motion

His boss, Patricia Bruner, has zero tolerance for that kind of non-performance. A veteran graphic designer, prepress operator, and department manager, Bruner launched the graphic arts technology program at Harper College in January 2005 with 38 students. Today it has an unduplicated seat count of 175, reflecting a 40% jump in enrollment in the fall semester. Those enrolled in the program include younger, full-time students as well as people currently working in the industry who want to upgrade their skills.

Bruner attributes the growth to good marketing, much of which she does personally. She works closely with the college’s three surrounding high school districts, and when feeder schools from these districts send students, she makes a point of teaching the introductory classes so that she can get to know all of the newcomers. Harper College is fortunate, she says, to be located in a part of the state where many high schools have graphic arts programs in which transferable college credit can be can be earned.

Harper College’s region is also well supplied with printing companies, and Bruner has forged close ties with them. The program’s advisory committee has 25 members, many of whom are acquaintances of Bruner’s from her hands-on days in the industry. A paper company donates stock for teaching exercises.

Bruner also has had to do some internal marketing at Harper College, where she says it took “quite a while” to convince the administration of the viability of a print-related academic program. But, persistence has paid off in the approval of a plan to build a 3,600-sq.-ft. pressroom that she hopes one day to equip with a four-color litho press and a digital press.

Bruner believes that the printing industry “needs to be rebranded” if it is to appeal to young people as a career choice. All graphic design programs, she says, should emphasize the need to make creativity printable by exposing students to as many different kinds of printed pieces as possible.

The View from NYU

Bonnie Blake, director of the Master of Arts Degree program in Graphic Communication Management and Technology at New York University, went Graph Expo primarily to monitor three of her students who were attending as interns. Their internships were sponsored by HP, Dalim Software, and Muller Martini, which also sponsored the attendance of four NYU student interns for the full duration of drupa 2008. She also spent time networking with fellow academics in Education Alley, in which she hopes to exhibit the NYU program at Print 09 next year.

The graduate program that Blake administers prepares students for management roles in both print and digital media, emphasizing the increasingly cross-media nature of the graphic communications industry. The program’s present enrollment of 100 is more than double what it was two years ago, and the program’s retention rate, Blake says, is 95%—a loyalty she attributes to the students’ thorough satisfaction with what they are learning.

Most of them are working full-time and attending classes at night and on Saturday. Their graduate studies, says Blake, are teaching them to be “nimble” managers and versatile problem-solvers for current and prospective employers, which include interactive ad agencies, corporations, printers, and publishing houses in the New York metropolitan area.

This broadly based skill set is meant bolster employability and job security no matter what the general economic outlook. “Our students are well positioned to succeed, especially in this downturn,” Blake says.

A recent curriculum revision has sought to blend skills-based training with management techniques in an effort to prevent the “silo” mindset that purely technical training sometimes can produce. And, although the NYU program covers digital media in all of its forms, the print-based sector of the graphic communications industry has not been forgotten.

According to Blake, one thing her students always take away from the program is a deep respect for the power of print in the media mix. “They’re amazed that more people don’t use print strategically,” she says.

Battling the Myth

A. Thomas Loch, president, a print technology instructor in the graphic arts program at Adlai E. Stevenson H.S. in Lincolnshire, IL, is president of International Graphic Arts Education Association Inc. (IGAEA), an 80-year-old organization for graphics educators at high schools, colleges, and trade and vocational schools. The group has a current membership of 500, and at schools where IGAEA members teach, says Loch, enrollment “is always a battle.”

Not only does the print-is-dead myth refuse to die in the outside world—it can also prejudice perceptions of graphics education within school walls. Loch says that his members often have to justify the existence of their programs, and that in some cases, programs exist only because they also serve as in-plants for their schools or school districts.

Loch points out that the support a graphics teacher gets from his or her local industry community depends on how good the teacher is at soliciting contributions. Fairly or unfairly, drumming up donations is an essential skill in a teaching discipline like print and graphics. Graphics teachers “have to learn how to work the system where they work,” says Loch, notwithstanding the fact that “math teachers don’t have to do it.”

Manufacturers and dealers can help by offering discounted prices on software and graphics equipment. Loch also asks vendors to be patient with schools’ budgeting timetables, which might take until June to approve items requested by teachers in January.

Paging “Johnny and Susie”

At Fox Valley Technical College (Appleton, WI), Gary Kilgas is the dean of a graphic studies program that has been in place since 1973. Today, serving about 125 students, it offers two-year associate degrees in printing and publishing and in package and label printing. Kilgas says that enrollment is up despite the fact that “Johnny and Susie aren’t being directed to the printing industry as a career.”

He notes that those who do find their way to Fox Valley’s graphics program can expect multiple job opportunities—sometimes as many as five per graduating student—when they complete their degrees. These graduates will have been trained in a hands-on environment featuring $14 million worth of graphic equipment, including a Xerox iGen3 digital color production press.

Because the teaching methods are intensive, class sizes are small—about 12 students per section. Although the program doesn’t seek to enroll large numbers of students, Kilgas says that he could add sections if the demand were there.

That’s one reason why the list of potential employment offers to those who complete the program is longer than the list of those applying for it. Another is the heavy concentration of labor-hungry printing companies in Fox Valley’s northeastern Wisconsin environs. More than 10,000 people work in printing and finishing within a 50-mile radius of Appleton, Kilgas says.

Not surprisingly, the program is well supported by local industry. Kilgas gets input on curriculum and other matters from an advisory commission representing eight to 10 printers in the region. Thanks to this partnership, a steady flow of donations assures that “we purchase very few materials for our program,” he adds.

But even a program as solidly established as Fox Valley’s gets inklings of how tenuous the outlook can be for graphic studies. Two similar programs recently closed down in Wisconsin, says Kilgas, for lack of the kind of support that Fox Valley’s enjoys.

At the Century Mark in Kansas

Next March, Pittsburg State University (Pittsburg, KS) will celebrate its 100th anniversary as a provider of academic programs in printing. J. David Oldham, assistant professor of Graphics and Imaging Technologies, says that the department currently enrolls about 200 students in undergraduate and graduate studies. Undergrads pursue a B.A. in either commercial graphics or graphics management. The M.S. degree offers the same choice of emphases.

The program’s student body has a strong international component, serving more than 50 students from outside the U.S. During Graph Expo, three of these students were interviewed (INSERT LINK) by WhatTheyThink about a research project into transpromo documents that they recently completed with the help of a grant from another Education Alley exhibitor, the Electronic Document Systems Foundation.

Dr. James S. Sours, department chair, observes that although most students who enter graphics programs assume that they’ll become graphic designers, their career ambitions change after a year or so. At Pittsburg State, graphics is taught as a continuum of input, manipulation, and output. According to Dr. Sours, many graphics programs teach input or input plus manipulation, but few add the output component.

The Pittsburg State program teaches all three in the contexts of multiple media, including non-print alternatives. The goal, Dr. Sours says, is to train well rounded students as “problem-solvers, not button-pushers”

At Peace with the Art Department

Dr. Ted M. Bensen, program director, Graphic Communications Management, University of Wisconsin-Stout (Menomonie, WI), says that enrollment has been on an upward trend for the last two years. About 125 students are now pursuing the B.S. degree, and because the program does not include a graphic design component, it doesn’t have to “recruit against the art department” for students whose primary focus is graphic design.

The curriculum has been modified to include core courses in new media, cross-media marketing, and web development. This was necessary, Bensen notes, because students entering Stout from high schools with graphics programs have been exposed to many other media besides print.

The UW-Stout program has enjoyed a 100% job placement rate for its graduates for many years, even during economic slowdowns. As a result, says Bensen, “we see our graduates all over the show floor” at events like Graph Expo.

To communicate the hiring demand to prospective students, Bensen puts on an annual graphics workshop to market the program to high schools and technical colleges in Stout’s region. He also sends students currently enrolled in the program as envoys to the feeder schools for peer-to-peer promotion.

Foreseeing an “enormous turnover” in graphic arts employment over the next five years, Bensen regards the churn as a problem that only talent incubation in programs like Stout’s can fix. “Employers tell us that while they can find people from other educational backgrounds, they can’t keep them,” he says. Graduates of graphics programs, on the other hand, are “true believers” who stay in the industry that they have trained to join.

“We need to keep that pipeline flowing,” Bensen says.