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Understanding Our Industry’s Labor Shortage

(December/January 2018) posted on Wed Jan 30, 2019

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.

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By Johnny Shell

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from many graphic communications programs, making the problem of having to use equipment and materials that are old and out of date even worse.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.


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