Frank Romano’s provocative article asking “Where have all the students gone?” and the equally incisive responses to it have raised enough issues to keep a thread on industry education running indefinitely. But I was particularly struck by several comments that go straight to the heart of what’s been wrong with so many earnest but feckless attempts to attract young people to careers in printing.
“For the most part,” writes Frank, “high school kids do not want to be printers...No high schooler, even a nerd, says ‘I want to be an estimator when I grow up.’"
One respondent thinks the problem lies with the recruitment tools we have been employing: “The material they use should be cool—a kid's cool, not a middle-aged business executive's cool.” But another poster zeroes in on what’s really the matter: “Your most important point is to make this industry more enticing to our younger generation. Short of developing a video game that some how mixes in snipers stealing cars while running a printing press, I am not quite sure how to go about it.”
Precisely. It’s time for the industry to stop portraying itself as “cool,” “enticing,” or anything else it imagines will appeal to an audience whose sensibilities it doesn’t share. Personal experience teaches that when you try to strike a “cool” pose with anybody more than 10 years your junior, the reaction you are most likely to get is embarrassed amusement. Why then do we think that a recruiting approach based upon our conception of “cool” will have a shred of credibility with young people who already believe—correctly—that we are quite clueless in this regard?
Printing is not a “cool” career adventure for those in search of instant gratification or a nicely compensated good time—it is a serious calling for a handful of entrants who possess the discipline, intelligence, and stamina to serve the craft as it must be served. Efforts to depict careers in printing as anything but strenuous, demanding lifetime assignments only patronize—and therefore put off—the few who actually have what it takes to accept the torch of craftsmanship from an older generation that is growing increasingly worried about where to pass it on.
Respondents to Frank’s initial article said it best. “We are not seeing as many young people in our industry or others because it is work, plain and simple,” wrote one. Another declared: “Print is not sexy. It is not the ‘next wave’ of anything. It’s like plumbing, you don't notice it until it doesn’t work. It has a 500+ - year tradition of capturing some of humanities greatest achievements (books) and worst (junk mail). It is also the butt-end of a computer. It is its output.” Blunt words, these, but honest. As career advice, they will be a red flag to some; but to others, a professional challenge that will transform their lives.
It will never be easy to attract young people to careers in printing. It shouldn’t be—and the industry shouldn’t be ashamed of the exclusivity that the perennial difficulty of filling its ranks implies. As one poster observed, no matter what we do, printing always sends a certain number of students scurrying in the opposite direction when they first encounter it: “I have to laugh on the occasions that they have a tour group of kids, either high school or college, come through our shop. We usually refer to those as the “‘Scared Straight Tours.’"
But sometimes the hook goes in. Another writer recalls, “The best career day was one in which we brought a press in. It was held in the gym and a good number of tables were set up with representatives from different industries exhibiting to students, much like a trade show. It was just a small two color duplicator, but the kids went nuts. Enrollment in the printing class went up 40 percent.”
Has every student in that enrollment surge gone on to embrace printing as an academic concentration and a career path? Probably not. But in every group of this kind, one, or two, or possibly even three get the germ of an idea that printing could be the place where the world of work is calling them to fit in. For a still smaller number, that first flash of interest deepens into a vocation—not because anybody has sold them on the dubious notion that printing is “cool,” but because they have seen the occupation for what it is and have been captivated by it for reasons of their own.
Let’s not forget that one of the best ways we can promote careers in print is by introducing as many students as possible to printing as it’s practiced in shops and plants every day. To a select few, the message will be better than “cool”—it will be irresistible.