Making the Workforce Transition from Analog to Digital Prepress

As prepress technology evolves, so must the capabilities of a screen shop's workforce. Find out how to ease your employees through the changes that come with a digital prepress workflow.

As I put this column together, it’s the end of November and I’m in the middle of performance reviews and general planning for 2008. This has been a very good year for us, and we’ve experienced significant growth overall. A good part of our growth has come about as the result of implementing a computer-to-screen (CTS) system a year and a half ago. I’ve written about this subject a few times over the last 18 months, focusing mostly on the technology and its influence on the prepress workflow. This month, I’d like to describe how these significant changes, which include the timing in our screenmaking area, have made it necessary to review the performance levels of the department and the personnel in it. Part of this review involves position descriptions and the salary scale of those involved.

 

Factoring change

There’s no doubt that CTS has had a dramatic impact on the way we do business. I call this the change factor. At its core is the understanding that what we’re doing today is only slightly related to the way we’ve done things in the past. The skill sets necessary today are quite different from the analog methods the industry has previously used. This should come as no surprise, because CTS is merely an extension of the digital imagesetter model in use by most larger screen printers for more than a decade now. The break comes when we find it necessary to bypass the generation of film positives and go directly to the screen. In the past, this step has been handled by some of the least compensated individuals in our industry. We simply hand them the job jacket with the film, and they position it on the screen and expose the image.

That’s all changed now. Instead of handling a physical job jacket, we’re dealing with data files. Depending on the RIP software you use, you can have a folder with multiple files in it, or a single file that’s processed and then imaged sequentially. Either way is fine, but what’s important is that you recognize the skill levels we need today are different from what was acceptable in the past. We must ask ourselves whether the workers we have are capable of doing the job.

This leads us to some very interesting information recently released by SGIA in its Wage and Salary Survey Report. It’s a compilation of dozens of positions within the industry as supplied by volunteer companies. The wages and salaries for each position are presented in a number of different formats. These include company size (by sales and employee), geographic location, and production specialty (graphic, industrial, or textile). Wages and salaries are only part of the equation. They must be paired with the appropriate position descriptions. If you’re an SGIA member (and I highly recommend you become one if you’re not), you have access to all of the position descriptions that go along with the report. If you participate in the survey, you get a complimentary copy of the compilation; otherwise, there is a small fee to get it.

As I was reviewing the wage data and the position descriptions, I was struck by the very obvious and stark reality of the analog vs. digital worlds. All of the positions for screenmaker, photostencil maker, screen reclaimer, and so on, required only a high-school diploma or GED and minimal writing skills. These positions are clearly seen as a vocational, hands on, work requirement. More importantly, the wage range was roughly $9.00-$13.75 per hour, depending on the position. With that level of education and experience, there is little in the way of possibility for advancement. The traditional requirements are seen as entry-level skill sets.

On the digital side, the positions associated with CTS were RIP operator, digital production artist, and electronic prepress operator. The salary range for these positions was $12.50-$20.67 per hour, depending on the specialty, region, and size of company. Most importantly, the recommended education level was a minimum of an Associated Arts degree from a two-year community college or technical school and a thorough knowledge of PC and Mac operating systems. These positions are seen as technical, requiring a higher educational level, and consequently a higher reasoning level. The wage range starts at the upper end of what the traditional screenmaker might earn. There is a clear, upward path for growth, extending beyond the imaging position to management in those areas.

So the questions at hand are these: Are we seeing the end of the traditional, analog craftsman on which our industry has evolved? If we are, what does this mean for us as managers and owners? Can we simply upgrade our existing workers into the new positions, or do we need to replace them with more highly educated individuals?

Based on my own experience, I think the answers are not so clear. While it’s evident digital technology is more sophis- ticated and requires a broader knowledge, I’m not sure we require everyone to have diagnostic skills. It is possible to make the technology and the decisions associated with it more user friendly or transparent. This is the key to our success in transitioning from analog to digital. The easier we can make it for the analog operators, the fewer problems we will have overall.

This means the burden for implementation falls clearly on the owners and managers to design, develop, and implement workflows that are compatible with the skill levels within their organizations. Purchasing and installing sophisticated software and digital imaging equipment can lead to disastrous results for those who fail in this area.

Recognizing the value of the employees allows us to make the transition successfully. You would not be where you are today without their efforts. However, past performance is not an indicator of future success. In fact, as we have seen, the skills necessary for your future success are not the same skills at all. While there are some legacy foundational skills, more and more of them are being replaced by automation, leaving the human operator in a position of peripheral involvement. This trend extends beyond CTS to automated reclaiming systems, automatic coaters, and more.

All of this automation reduces the need for technical labor. As the labor cost per hour continues to escalate here in the US and other industrialized economies, the ROI for fully automated systems becomes more and more attractive. This is especially true as the cost of digital controllers, stepping motors, and imaging technology continues to decline. On top of all this, the original patents on digital imaging are beginning to expire. This means an increase in competition, and more and more suppliers will have access to the core imaging engines.

 

Embracing the next step

You should clearly see, as a manager or owner, that we’re reaching the tipping point. The graphics segment of the industry already knows this. Witness the change in the make up of exhibitors at the recent SGIA trade show. As the speed and flexibility of flatbed and roll-fed inkjet continues to increase, the competitive advantage of traditional screen printing becomes less and less.

The conclusion for us is obvious. If we truly are in the graphic-communication business, we must be flexible and adaptable to the imaging processes we use. A significant portion of our efforts needs to be focused on transitioning our traditional, analog-oriented employees into a digital model. We must be fully aware of the psychology of change and the approaches to use in order to achieve a successful transition.

One thing comes through loud and clear in my role as a consultant to companies that wish to make this kind of a transition: The technology is only a very small fraction of the effort involved. It is perhaps 15-20% of the total effort. The remaining 80-85% encompasses the psychology of change and the empowerment of employees as they move through the change process. Your vision must be crystal clear and your focus sharp and defined. If you go into a transition phase without vision and focus, you’re sure to stumble. Your employees are already wary and apprehensive of how the new technologies will impact their livelihoods. If you do not set a strong, defined course, they will sense it and resist. They’re looking for clear leadership. If it’s there, they will follow. If they sense any hesitation, the game is over before it begins.

Evolution of a business model or technology is inevitable. Recognizing change in the wind and how you face it are crucial to your successful adaptation. We walk a fine line. Jumping in too early and unprepared can be disastrous. Waiting too long can put you behind competitively and cause you to lose marketshare.

The transition from analog to digital is now a well established fact. We are no longer in the us vs. them debate. It is no longer a question of if, but a question of when, you will make the transition to digital. Your success begins with understanding what you have to work with, and this means your existing employees. If you have not already made a choice for direct digital imaging or CTS, start the process of evaluating which technology you will choose.

In the meantime, keep your focus on the positioning and transition of your workforce. Review previous installments of Prepress Wire that discuss CTS technology (Nov. 2005 and Aug. 2006). These will help you to understand the task at hand and will shorten your learning curve. The good news is that many have walked this path ahead of you. However, you must still make the choices and do the work for your own company. Now is a good time to start the process—or continue it if you’ve already started. I truly believe that it is a journey that does not end. We must continually evaluate and refine as our performance and experience increase.

 

Mark A. Coudray is president of Coudray Graphic Technologies, San Luis Obispo, CA. He has served as a director of the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association Int’l (SGIA) and as chairman of the Academy of Screen Printing Technology. Coudray has authored more than 250 papers and articles over the last 20 years, and he received the SGIA’s Swormstedt Award in 1992 and 1994. He covers electronic prepress issues monthly in Screen Printing magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at coudray@coudray.com.

 

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