Understanding Our Industry’s Labor Shortage

You may experience the symptoms of a tight labor market each time you place an ad on Indeed, but the roots of the problem in specialty printing run much deeper.

One of the biggest challenges facing printing businesses today is finding skilled employees. Let’s face it, printing is a specialized field: It’s often difficult to find qualified candidates for open positions, especially with unemployment rates at historical lows. Too often, employers find themselves with a choice between recruiting workers from other shops or bringing in people with no print experience and training them from scratch.

But in order to get a full appreciation of the issue, you need to consider what’s happening in schools where graphic communications are taught. Part of my role at SGIA is to work with the educators who run the secondary and post-secondary programs where many individuals receive their first real exposure to print technology. My discussions with these teachers point to another hard truth we have to acknowledge: Part of our labor dilemma is the challenge of convincing young people to consider a future in print.

Print Education

Many young adults enter these programs because they are drawn to creative design, color, or perhaps computers and graphic applications. Typical graphic communications programs focus on a wide variety of media including web design, video, advertising design, and some of the major printing platforms. But there isn’t a program focused entirely on print; instead, print is rolled in with other types of media. Some schools have abandoned their print curriculum entirely.

“Our students are very interested in our graphics program, but generally they show a slightly stronger interest in screen-based applications than print,” says Malcolm Keif, Ph.D., professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, California. “I think that programs have to remain relevant to student interest. That means either going 100 percent web and mobile, which some programs have (abandoning print), or blending screen-based media with print media.” 

Part of the problem stems from the fact that many of the programs that have been shut down were focused on commercial and publication printing. Successful programs have evolved to embrace specialty printing technologies that are of high interest to students today – meaning that these programs often produce students that are better grounded in what our segments of the industry do. “Offset printing continued to decline, so we removed it a few years ago,” says Pam Smith, graphic communications instructor at Monroe Advanced Technical Academy (MATA), Leesburg, Virginia. “We’ve focused on technology platforms like wide-format inkjet, dye sublimation, and screen printing that captivate the students and give them an opportunity to exercise their creative talents in real-world scenarios.” 

Many educators stress the need to build programs around practical skills that can translate to future employability. “Course requirements that are written to satisfy minimum federal funding guidelines often produce dull courses that students are not interested in completing,” says Glenn Laird, graphic arts instructor at Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles, noting that his school uses the SkillsUSA model that stresses personal development and strong technical skills. “You can have an inexpensive course with no investment besides computers and software, but to keep students interested, you have to be very creative to maintain enrollment.” Eagle Rock students gain hands-on experience with multicolor screen printing, DTG and heat transfer printing, rotary engraving, dye sublimation, computer-cut vinyl, lamination, and wide-format printing on eco-solvent and latex machines. They are charged with choosing the most appropriate technology for the job and taking projects from design through finishing.

At Cal Poly, the students are not only taught the mechanics of specialty printing, but also the role it plays in advertising and marketing execution. Says Keif: “I think that integrating cross-marketing concepts, along with digital media like augmented reality, helps to keep students engaged. If students create and then measure the impact (that is, the return on investment) of print media like window clings or vehicle wraps, they not only have a sense of pride, but also see the relevance of the industry. If they can incorporate an app and use graphics to drive other students to the app, they understand that print is very relevant as part of a larger media mix.” Think about how much more valuable an employee who understands that the work you do helps your client achieve their objectives is to your business.

Some programs, including Eagle Rock, have gone a step further and structured their programs as revenue centers to meet the needs of other departments and even other schools. “Many schools do not see the benefits of running a production-based program due to the costs, both startup and ongoing [costs] for equipment upgrades and supplies,” says Laird, allowing that both the production and administrative time to manage purchasing, billing, and sales is considerable. “If you have a one-stop location for all of a school’s graphic needs, then you are offering a value to both the students who learn diverse production techniques as well as to the school. Your program is seen as an asset instead of a cost center.”

MATA has also evolved to prioritize current techniques taught on modern production equipment, taking advantage of new construction in its district. “Our county just built a new school,” Smith explains, “so we were able to focus on improving the program with new graphic equipment like wide-format inkjet and screen printing. We also 

participate in the SkillsUSA and Tom Frecska Student Printing competitions, which provide incentives and motivation to the students. We try to deliver opportunities in our program to expose students to real-world client projects.”

But staying current can be a challenge. Programs are adapting to technology that the industry adopted over a decade ago, so there is often a gap between the equipment that schools have to teach with and what is actually being used by the industry.

On top of that, funding is being cut from many graphic communications programs, making the problem of having to use equipment and materials that are old and out of date even worse. With little or no money, you can understand why so many programs are suffering. I’m always amazed when I visit a school to talk about specialty printing and see firsthand just how little they have.

And it must be repeated that despite the great examples like the ones I mention here, programs are still shutting down. It’s a big problem, and unless the industry steps up and takes an active role in cultivating the future workforce, it’s going to get worse.

Get Involved

So, what can you do?

Well, I’d recommend connecting with local schools, especially those with Career Technical Education programs, to offer field trips to your company. Open your doors and let these young kids inside to see printing in action. Do it at least once a year – more if your area has several schools. Ask about opportunities to come and talk with students about your business. Bring samples or photos so they can connect with the end product that was produced. 

The schools will be incredibly receptive to the idea. “We connect with local printing companies for tours and in-class presentations to help students understand what takes place in a real printing business,” Smith says. “Many of those in our community serve on our advisory committees. Each year, we invite representatives from the community to review our students’ portfolios that demonstrate their work in real-world projects that show their skills.”

Connect with your state’s SkillsUSA organization, the competition-based program that Laird and Smith both advocate. SGIA is involved at the national level and organizes the Screen Printing Technology and Graphic Imaging/Sublimation competitions, but these contests begin at the regional and state level. Volunteer to be a judge, or better yet, offer to host the printing competition in your facility over a weekend. Manufacturers and suppliers can offer much-needed equipment and materials, so these events can be held successfully with minimal costs. The industry stepped up in a big way to support the 2018 SkillsUSA national competitions, contributing more than $96,000 in prizes.

If you find that there aren’t any printing competitions in your area, consider starting them. As schools incorporate digital inkjet and screen printing technologies, it’s a prime opportunity to collaborate with them and organize a regional or state competition. The kids who participate could be excellent employees for you someday. SGIA has competition templates that were developed with SkillsUSA California; contact us for more details. 

Finally, I will issue a challenge to the entire industry: Get involved. Otherwise, we must accept and endure a continuous shortage of skilled employees. This situation isn’t going to solve itself, and we as an industry must band together and develop strategies to address it. Support your local schools and offer some of your time or a field trip opportunity; participate in career fairs offered in your community. Contact the SkillsUSA organization and ask about their printing competitions in your region or state and how you can be involved. You never know when you will spark that internal flame in a student after they see printing for the first time.

 

Johnny Shell is VP of printing technology and training for SGIA. As part of his role, he works to educate the industry on the capabilities of specialty printing. He was elected to the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies in 2011.

Read more from the December 2018/January 2019 issue, including the full report on the "Five Key Trends for the Next Five Years" series.

View more from this Screen Printing issue