Walking the aisles of a trade show gives one a number of ways to take the pulse of an industry. The easiest and most obvious is to make note of the hot spots where people congregate en masse to learn more about new technology. A large crowd generally indicates something new, different, and/or interesting  or warm, fresh-baked cookies Thank you, Kinko's!

The second way is to watch the booth staff  sales people quickly wilt if interest in their products isn't high. One of the less obvious ways to check on the health of an industry is to find out about hiring. More candidates than opportunities? The industry is in trouble. More and changing opportunities. Now that's a healthy industry

PrintLink is a graphic arts placement service with 134 job opportunities in the US and Canada listed on its web site. Sounds encouraging! Arnold Kahn, president of PrintLink, took time from the show to share some of his observations on staffing opportunities as a leading indicator of the health of the graphic arts industry.

WTT: Monday and Tuesday at On Demand were apparently pretty good for a lot of vendors. What's your take on the show?

AK: I thought the show was terrific from beginning to end  it reminded me of the shows 5 years ago, when attendance was strong and the energy level of the attendees was very high. It was encouraging.

The technology of digital print and print-on-demand has truly arrived. That's drawn even more interested parties who are not only here for the technology but are looking for very qualified people to participate in their organizations.

WTT: Your business is sort of a leading indicator. When people start looking for more staff, that's a sign that things are picking up, isn't it?

AK: It certainly seems that way, with regard to on demand technology. This has been the best show we've seen in a number of years and the attitude toward hiring is strong. There is a crying demand for solution sales people who understand both the digital component and the intangibles of software sales. Fewer companies are interested in traditional sales people; more are looking to the digital print and solution sales side.

Selling digital print is different from selling traditional commercial print and the companies who are looking now want to provide their customers with a total print solution. Companies like Kinko's and some of the other major players who have a tremendous need for very qualified people who understand digital work flow, and at the same time can also talk to senior level managers about delivering on their whole print requirement. Sales people need to extract from the prospect what they need to accomplish - what campaigns they want to execute, for example  and then be able to articulate the software and print solution.

WTT: Consultative sales people  with experience in solution selling  have unique skills. Are you finding enough people with those capabilities?

AK: No, there certainly are not enough of those kinds of candidates. That's a challenge for us. Some candidates have reinvented themselves and moved from traditional to digital print sales; and we are seeing some  even more successful  who have come from the technical side of the business and understand digital workflow. Those are folks who haven't considered themselves sales before, but enjoy client contact and have grown into the role. I find that they can be very successful because they sell with genuine knowledge; because they comprehend the technology so well, they can assist the buyers with the solutions they are looking for.

The nature of the sales people today is far different than it was many years ago. Sales people today have to be technically qualified to be really good. Buyers don't have the patience to deal with sales people who don't know their product very well and, in many cases, the buyers themselves are not all that experienced. To move away from commoditizing the product to selling the value proposition, you have to be able to articulate it well to distinguish yourself from the competition.

WTT: With the economy down the last couple of years, I imagine you've had a whole lot more job seekers than you have had companies looking for staff. Historically, what has been your ratio of job seekers to opportunities?

AK: The ratio has been about 3 to 1, job seekers to opportunities. It's no secret that companies were downsizing with abandon. When companies are scaling down to bare bones, it, obviously makes it much more difficult for job seekers to find opportunities.

There has been an inversion  and that's encouraging! We're seeing companies with good business models, digital technology has been accepted and, of course, there appears to be an up tick in the economy. Printers, vendors, and suppliers are beginning to ramp up with a need to add special talents and skills to their organizations. They need to service their contracts well, but also to initiate and execute marketing plans for future growth.

WTT: What do you think your ratios are now? Are they more even?

AK: Whether it's exactly even, that's hard to say, but it's certainly dramatically different. The ratio is close to balanced; we have about as many people looking for opportunities as we have companies looking for people with special solution-selling skills.

In another area, companies are looking for true marketing individuals who have experience in this environment. Traditionally, printers have been more reactive than proactive. They never paid much attention to marketing; they couldn't really see a need for marketing their companies. The sales function is a short-term tactic, whereas marketing is more strategic and more long term.

With heavy debt loads and pressured by soft sales, the pressure was on improving cash flow. It was more important to have someone coming out of the gate running and selling, rather than to plan a strategic attack identify and build a niche where the company could stand out.

Now those companies who are progressive, those that will be the real stars of tomorrow, are the firms that are concentrating on strong viable marketing plans coupled with a good solution-selling sales force to build their organizations.

WTT: I know you probably don't like to publish numbers, but can you give me some idea of ranges of salaries? There may be a perception that the print industry doesn't pay very well.

AK: It's a mixed bag, really. Pay for a lot of positions is reflective of the geographic locations; California and New York historically pay more than Kansas or Mississippi. But then, it also costs considerably more to live there. When someone is used to making a significant income in a very cosmopolitan, densely-populated area, it's hard to consider taking a cut in compensation. Even if they are offered something they would like in a terms of a more rural, less costly environment. Companies in those locations sometimes find it hard to attract people, if their pay scale is so much lower than others.

While various locations pay differently, the print industry pays well, when compared to many other industries. For instance, technical middle management salaries can range between $50K and $100K per year, pretty decent compensation levels in today's market place. When you get into upper middle and senior level positions, those pay in the six figure ranges - $100K - $200K per year. And, while there are super stars making considerably more, they are a very small percentage.

WTT: Anything else you'd like to share with us?

AK: Strong technical people are very much in need and we are seeing more requests for IT positions to be filled. IT is no longer limited to the financial side of the company, to the computer networks and accounting functions; it has broadened into software solutions for manufacturing and production workflow.

One of the biggest problems we have as an industry is attracting technically qualified people to print. Young people coming out of school don't think of print as a progressive, exciting arena with a future, they still envision printing as ink under the fingernails.

Printing is really a high tech industry and we need to promote it as such. Then people who have interest in computer science will be attracted to the industry and will find opportunities.

The takeaway: printing is a high tech industry, it's hiring, and it's paying!