National Apprenticeship Week 2016 takes place from November 14 to November 20. The printing industry probably won’t pay it much notice.

That’s because as an industry, it remains chronically short of apprenticeships and other forms of practical training to replenish its thinning ranks of skilled workers. It’s a problem that the industry has been brooding about for years—and doing remarkably little to solve.

Various professional education programs for the graphic arts exist, and it’s possible to earn academic degrees in graphic studies from colleges and universities. But, these incubators don’t come close to answering the question of what will happen when press operators and other machine-tending production personnel now in middle and late middle age take off their paper hats for the final time.

It’s a dispiriting picture, and to be fair to the printing industry, it’s one that hangs over many other parts of America’s industrial base. A tangle of historic, economic, and structural reasons underlies the dearth of non-academic, hands-on skill training programs for printing, and hoping for a universal solution probably isn’t realistic.

A printing trade association in the eastern U.S. has the germ of a new approach to skills development programs. If it succeeds, other groups may be able to use it to build pipelines from locally stocked talent pools to talent-hungry printing businesses in their regions. 

Not a Crisis, but Still...

It would be going too far to call the talent shortfall a crisis—the industry is in no imminent danger of running out of good people to operate its equipment.

The Conference Board, a business research organization, places printing-related jobs relatively low in its rankings of occupations at risk of labor shortages through 2024. The talent supply was copious enough for Semper International, a recruitment firm specializing in graphic communications, to place 1,500 people in full-time and temporary positions in 2015, says Brian Regan, Semper’s president.

Nevertheless, the industry’s workforce is fading as it grays. Half of the respondents to a 2014 survey conducted by several regional affiliates of Printing Industries of America indicated that 30% to 50% of their workforces would retire in five to 10 years. The survey also showed that the median age was over 45 in in nearly two-thirds of the respondents’ offset pressrooms.

There is also the impact of location. Because talent pools aren’t as deep in some places as they are in others, and because worker mobility can be limited, production jobs that open up in the shallows tend to stay open longer than employers like. 

According to print industry economist Dr. Joseph Webb, “geography is very often underrated” in its effect upon labor availability. He explains that it can be a case of people having the right skills, but in inopportune places.

Who, What, Where

A plant closure in one state puts qualified workers back into the hiring pool. But, if plants in their own state can’t absorb them, and if plants with job openings in other states are too far away for them to relocate to, nobody benefits.

Another drain occurs when workers who lose printing jobs decide against pursuing further career opportunities in the printing industry.

Less than competitive salaries are a factor here. In UnSquaring the Wheel, a book he co-authored with Chris Bondy and Wayne Peterson, Webb notes that annual payrolls for printing occupations trail payrolls in public relations, advertising, and publishing—fields where people with contemporary graphic communications skills have a shot at finding good-paying positions.

It all leaves an understaffed employer with three options: hire workers away from local competitors; acquire the necessary personnel by purchasing another company; home-grow the talent. The first option is risky. The second is expensive. The third exposes the gap in the industry’s ability to fully manage turnover in shop-floor employment on its own terms.

The printing industry used to have apprenticeship programs and other systematic methods of cultivating job skills. Experts in printing education and employment point to a string of causes that have made most of them disappear.

Harvey Levenson, professor emeritus, California Polytechnic State University, sees apprenticeships as inevitable casualties of the printing industry’s evolution from a craft to a manufacturing to a service industry. This shift, not confined to printing, took place more rapidly among U.S. industries than it did in Germany, the U.K., and other countries where apprenticeships continue to be linchpins of workforce training and development.

“Craft required apprenticeships, often strung out over many years under the guidance of already skilled workers,” Levenson says. “Manufacturing required more formal education about systems, workflow, time-motion analysis, industrial engineering, and so on.”

From an Industry to a Profession

Service demanded even more formal education and brought disciplines such as human relations, psychology, and marketing into the picture. And then there was process automation through software that replaces or co-opts human skills.

“As software became the driving force that drives technology, the focus on service became even greater,” Levenson says. “Today, in the printing industry, nearly all equipment is driven by software.” The result, in his view, is that “printing is no longer an industry, but a profession” that has little use for the craft-centric training methods of the past.

That kind of training used to come from commercial trade schools, vocational high schools, community colleges, and in particular, trade union training programs. Coalitions of printing company owners like the former Metropolitan Lithographers Association of New York City would fund union training schools both to preserve labor peace and to be sure having a steady supply of skilled machine operators.

Frank Romano, professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology, remembers these institutions well. “U.S. apprenticeship programs were tied to the various print unions. As the union membership declined, so did the training programs,” he says. “High schools usually had vocational programs that filled the gap, but these morphed into desktop publishing training that tended more toward design than production.”

Don’t Give It the Old College Try

Romano says he is often asked, where do we train press operators? “I tell them that that you do not go to college to learn how to run a press. Especially those that are highly automated.”

But in the absence of training programs, how would a young person who wanted to learn how to operate printing presses acquire that knowledge and skill today? When Jesus Rodriguez asks himself this question, he comes up with a stark answer.

Except possibly for instruction in the electrical aspects of presswork, “there are no training programs available to get quality instruction in printing press operations,” says Rodriguez, professor emeritus, Pittsburg State University. That means newcomers have to rely upon on-the-job-training, a solution that he regards as imperfect.

In his view, “OJT is limited, it is expensive, and at best it perpetuates what the teaching craftsman has learned over time, right or wrong.” Another downside is that because craftspeople seasoned enough to teach are among those aging out of the industry the fastest, the number of novices to whom they can pass on their skills is small. 

At One Time, Top-Heavy with Talent 

As a recruiter, Regan has made a business of helping printers deal with the trends described by the academics.

He says that when he started Semper International in 1995, the industry had reached a “critical mass” of talent and was even on the verge of being oversupplied with skilled workers. That abundance declined as the industry’s Baby Boomers began to retire and the pernicious print-is-dead myth took hold in the minds of young people who would otherwise have been printing’s star prospects.

Regan says that high schools and colleges, caught up in the myth and misled by questionable statistics about print industry employment, overreacted by shrinking or discontinuing their graphic arts programs. Union schools disappeared, and printing companies cut back their own investments in training. According to Regan, the industry did itself no favors by failing to keep its wages competitive with what workers could earn in other sectors. 

But, Regan thinks he sees hope for the industry’s ability to attract and groom the talent it needs.

For one thing, he says, “the narrative of printing as a dying industry is false, and people are starting to realize it.” There’s also a renewed appreciation of the value of training. For example, with Semper’s help, some printing companies are hiring novices for apprentice-like positions designed to give them a basic skill set. The pay is low at first, but as the trainees’ capabilities grow, so do their salaries.

It would be nice, to say the least, for printers and other manufacturing employers to get some public support for their efforts to train their next generations of workers.

In 1917, the U.S. made an historic commitment to vocational education by passing the Smith-Hughes Act, legislation that provided federal aid to the states for training in agriculture, industrial trades, and what was then called “home economics.” It has since been replaced by other enactments and initiatives intended to promote school-to-work opportunities.

The U.S. Department of Labor, for example, operates ApprenticeshipsUSA, under the auspices of which National Apprenticeship Week is held. In April, the department announced it would spend $90 million—on top of $175 million allocated in 2015—to help states and the private sector expand apprenticeship programs in high-growth and high-tech industries. Participating sponsors provide “Registered Apprenticeships” that combine pay, training, and credentialing for eligible employees.

In February 2015, U.S. Senators Tim Scott (R-SC) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) reached across the aisle to introduce a bill that would offer federal tax credits to employers who create registered apprenticeships. In announcing the Leveraging and Energizing America’s Apprenticeship Programs Act, or LEAP Act, Booker noted that while half of all young German workers are apprentices, only 350,000 apprentice positions are to be found in the U.S.

New Approach from The Old Line State

The LEAP Act awaits further action in the Senate. Meanwhile, a printing trade association that knows its members can’t afford to wait for qualified help when they need it is moving forward with a publicly funded workforce training program of its own.

Paul Foster was a printing teacher at a Baltimore County, MD, technical high school when the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), the Printing and Graphics Association MidAtlantic (PGAMA) and his local school district encouraged him to prepare the school’s printing curriculum for PrintED accreditation. Administered by the Graphic Arts Education and Research Foundation (GAERF), PrintED promulgates industry-approved standards for graphic communications training programs in high schools and colleges.

The high school printing program that Foster obtained accreditation for is one of 17 PrintED-accredited curricula in Maryland. After going to work for PGAMA, where he is now a vice president, he witnessed the closing of the last post-secondary printing program in Maryland.

This left the state’s high school students with no post-secondary pathway to continue their print education. It also meant that print industry employers had nowhere to send their employees for skills-based training and continuing professional development.

That led to the idea of creating a workforce training program based on existing PrintED resources: skills-based competencies, accredited high school facilities and instructors, and PrintED skill assessments. PGAMA formed the Print Strategic Industry Partnership (PrintSIP) to develop and deliver the program.

Foster says that with the help of a $150,000 EARN (Employment Advancement Right Now) grant from the Maryland Department of Labor, PrintSIP has rolled out three course modules this year and will introduce a fourth next spring.

The project’s learn-to-earn component is the commitment that PrintSIP firms make to interview those who complete the courses. There are no guarantees of job offers, but Foster thinks that the graduates will be highly attractive to the employers who agree to see them.

High Achievers on Lockdown

This is because printing companies that survived the recession “are just dying for people” they can rely on, he says. The downturn weeded out poor performers, and employers keep the remaining good ones “locked down” with preferential treatment so that they won’t bolt to the competition.

Foster says that sending people into the workforce with PrintED-quality training is the answer for employers who lament, “We can’t find anyone who has experience.” Taught at local high schools and other sites in the Baltimore area, the modules consist of 36 hours of instruction over six weeks with a PrintED skill assessment for certification at the end. The training locations, says Foster, are well equipped, and all of the instructors are PrintEd-certified.

Now in progress are the modules Introduction to Graphic Communications; Digital Production Printing; and Offset Press Operations (including binding and finishing). Coming next spring is Digital File Preparation and Output.

To date, the PrintSIP program has had 31 registrants, 14 of whom have completed their coursework. Eleven are currently enrolled in the offset press module. The training is open to incumbent workers, graduates of PrintED-accredited high school programs, returning citizens (i.e., the formerly incarcerated), and others with interest in and aptitude for printing-related employment.

The original grant proposal envisions training 40 people in the program’s pilot phase. Foster says that PGAMA has received another $150,000 to train 40 more people in other parts of Maryland. PGAMA is also supporting the state’s plan to take part in ApprenticeshipsUSA. The joint efforts help to keep state officials convinced that print is alive, well, and still worth investing in.

PGAMA’s grass-roots, cooperative approach to training is admirable, and it deserves to be copied elsewhere. But, the industry faces obstacles to workforce replacement and development that no training methodology can overcome by itself.

One is that many jobs in conventional production will disappear permanently when, for whatever reason, the people now holding them move on.

In August, John Stewart, a consultant to the quick-print segment of the industry, reported that few respondents to a survey about the future of offset said they planned to terminate any of their offset press operators. Others, however, said that they had closed down their offset departments after the departure of press operators or that they intended to do so upon losing these employees.

Nearly half said that they had seriously considered eliminating offset printing altogether and brokering out work that could not be completed internally—a response with obvious implications for the future of offset printing employment.

Stop “Intimidating” Them

Conventional production jobs are giving to way to career opportunities for digital equipment specialists, but the trick remains convincing bright and energetic young people to want to pursue them. In this respect, the industry still has an serious image problem to deal with.

Webb speaks of encountering young media professionals who think of print not as dead, but as “intimidating.” They’re put off, he explains, by the misconception that print is set in stone and can’t be manipulated like the digital media that define their comfort zones. As Webb notes, it will take a prodigious amount of education to win over a generation that has never heard of variable-data printing, PDF workflows, and web-to-print customer interface.

The encouraging news is that this pool of talent is out there and that the tadpoles swimming in it are more open to employment opportunities in graphic communications than they—and perhaps the industry—may realize.

During Graph Expo 2016, about 200 local high school students took part in a “Career Awareness Day” program hosted by GAERF. They admired printed and finished samples from the show floor; saluted the winners of a student graphic design competition that drew more than 400 entries; and listened with attention as speakers told them that the companies represented at the show need and want to employ people with their kinds of skills and creativity.

The industry’s solutions for cultivating workforce talent aren’t perfect. But with human resources this attractive, it would be unwise to use them to anything less than their full extent.