Staffing and Labor in 2024 and Beyond
It’s not a new problem, no matter how you frame it. Labor. Talent. Hiring. Retention. Staffing. At the crux of the challenge is that finding — and keeping — qualified, passionate people isn’t easy. Global and economic factors over the past few years certainly accelerated some of the pressures, but these challenges were looming for years before COVID was part of our collective vocabulary, and they will continue to play a critical role in the success — or failure — of printers in every segment of this industry for the foreseeable future.
- The personnel problems facing the print industry aren’t issues that can be resolved quickly or easily:
- There is a growing lack of highly trained personnel as older generations retire and take that institutional knowledge with them.
- There has been a major reduction in high school programs for trades of any sort, so younger generations aren’t being exposed to manufacturing jobs as a career choice.
- There is a lack of interest in the industry — there is a perception that it is “dead,” or that it is a dirty, messy job and not a modern career.
- There is a lack of active, consistent recruiting, so those who make their way into print do so more by accident than design.
- There is a lack of training and mentoring at printing firms constrained by time and labor resources, making it easier for employees to walk away.
All these problems — combined with the challenges of a pandemic, supply chain issues, and possible recession — are a perfect storm that have left printers scrambling.
“Not surprisingly, companies in the printing industry will continue to have difficulties in attracting and keeping talent [in 2023],” says Joe Marin, senior vice president, member services, PRINTING United Alliance. “There is a skills gap, and people with industry experience and technical expertise are in increasingly high demand.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t steps printers can be taking to improve the situation. It won’t be quick or easy, but embracing the new talent landscape will help printers attract and retain some of the best talent out there.
What can printers expect? First and foremost, notes David Regan, CEO of staffing firm Semper Group, there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “I think we are in flux,” he says. “I think we are moving toward a better, more stable market for labor, and companies for the first time in a long while see labor as a key value. We still have huge holdouts, but companies are changing.”
“People [are] getting their feet back under them and feeling like ‘OK, I can move forward,’” says Jules Van Sant, founder, Bubble & Hatch, and chairperson of the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF). “There [are] going to be opportunities to recruit people from outside our industry, to go recruit great talent and enthusiasm, and bring them on and see where they might fit, as opposed to trying to put them into a set position.”
That recruitment can’t just be something that happens organically — it must be a concerted effort that everyone prioritizes. Leslie Gurland, the executive vice president of global sales and marketing for LUX Global Label, notes, “I think we have to put a full-on effort into engaging the next generation. And not just printers, but for manufacturing in general. There is a disconnect with the top leaders saying they want to bring manufacturing back to the United States, and us saying we have it, but we don’t have the workers. So how do we bridge that gap?”
Gurland says that finding these individuals is “the million dollar question.” The print industry can’t just sit back and hope they walk through the door. Rather, she notes, printers need to try to go to them. “We need to go to the schools and find the kids who aren’t going to college,” she says. “We need to tell them this is a career path where you can make decent money.”
One school in New Jersey partnered with an OEM to sponsor the school and install a press to help them learn a trade. But that kind of engagement isn’t something a small printer can tackle on its own — which is where an industry-wide effort will need to step in. That said, Gurland notes that there are things the average shop can do to help bridge the gap, such as giveaways. “Throw swag at them,” she laughs. “T-shirts, hats, etc. Let them get to know your company, and you can create a loyalty factor with a $20 shirt. And whatever the social media trends are — get out there. Talk about how print is an exciting career.”
Another potential place to look for talent is one many might be overlooking: immigrants and shelters. Gurland notes that LUX has had success partnering with local organizations dedicated to helping immigrants find jobs in this country, which can be difficult, especially if there is a language barrier. But these organizations can help get past that roadblock, and printers could get access to a pool of hard-working individuals who are eager to learn. Another option is to talk to local shelters, such as those for people experiencing homelessness, or those dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence. Have a career day at the shelter and offer training to anyone who wants it. It is another path to finding talented individuals who might otherwise be overlooked.
That said, Gurland notes that this isn’t a process that can just be tossed at someone as a side job. “[Recruiting] is a full-time job,” she notes. “You need to have someone dedicated to it.”
Then get the word out. “If you look outside the industry, you see that there is no marketing to those applying [for jobs],” notes Adam Brenner, president of National Printing and Packaging Specialists (NPPS). “You see green technology, software, medical, and IT. These industries are constantly talked about.” To compete with these industries, it’s not enough to invest in the latest technologies. Printers also need to actively talk about them. This is perhaps the single biggest action every printer — no matter the size or geographic location — can do to improve the labor pool for the industry. As more talented, passionate youth are drawn into the industry, they will in turn tell others about it. By not engaging, print will continue to lose out to the perceived “sexy” careers in high-tech fields.
“Most campaigns are ‘preaching to the choir,’” says Harvey Levenson, professor emeritus at Cal Poly. “Here’s an example: We often hear ‘print is dead.’ But within our industry we say it’s not dead. There are so many discussions and exclamations of how important it is, but those take place among those who are in the printing industry. Print has changed. Information and communication are not dead, so we need to make the case that printing is one segment of those communications — an important segment. We must make the point to the public that every means of communication has its own effectiveness, and print is effective in terms of detail, longevity, more recall, etc., promoting the industry and the importance of print.”
Retaining the Top Talent — and Knowledge
As the labor market begins to shift, the most talented individuals are looking to find stability in one job rather than jumping around between gigs. Along with this comes the desire to have a position that pays the bills. Brenner stresses that while compensation isn’t necessarily the only thing potential candidates are evaluating when it comes to accepting a job offer, it remains a major motivator. “Especially because of the inflation rate, you have to be able to accommodate individuals,” he says. “That is going to be a major problem. People coming from outside the print industry are demanding more than those already inside it.”
“Any type of manufacturing is running into this problem,” says Gurland. “People don’t want to work the second and third shifts, and that’s been a challenge. There have been discussions within LUX on how to handle this, and we even increased wages substantially to entice people to come work here.” She continues, “A dollar will make a difference. A manufacturing worker will move for $2 an hour.”
Brenner does point out, however, that throwing money at people isn’t the answer either. First, he says, printers need to have the right people on board, those who are passionate about the work the company does, and who are committed to lifting the team. These are the people printers should focus on for both hiring and promoting within to create a culture of teamwork. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter how much — or little — the compensation is if the person isn’t contributing to the work or is bringing the team down. Don’t just hire a warm body. Be prepared to fairly compensate the talented and motivated people who can be trained if they don’t already know the business.
That said, Levenson also notes that printers who want to be competitive for the best available talent need to embrace other benefits. “The pandemic demonstrated that for certain types of jobs, flexible opportunities are attractive to employees: flextime, working from home, child care and eldercare support, childbirth leave, professional development, etc.,” he continues. “Hire bright and promising people, and delegate responsibility and authority, and get out of the way. Do not micromanage. Trust the judgment of bright people as a rule, not as an exception. Make professional development part of the employment package offered.”
Printers also need to realize they aren’t just competing with other printers for top talent. As newer generations enter the workforce, they are exposed to high-tech companies and industries, and pushed by parents, teachers, and society to covet careers in those spaces. To stand out, printers need to embrace technology as well.
Printers that aren’t investing in new technologies are going to have a harder time recruiting. “They are staying with what they have, and because of that they’re going to have a smaller pool of talent to draw from,” says Van Sant.
Once those talented individuals have joined the company, keeping them isn’t a simple prospect. At the core of making print a more attractive industry, says Regan, is cultivating passion in the workplace. “We need to empower our people to help us power our companies through to the next evolution of the workplace,” he notes. “Give our people the tools and the goals and step out of their way. Trust them, treat them like adults, and compensate them for doing well. No half measures.”
Levenson stresses that opportunities to learn and grow are another key element to attracting a more diverse workforce. “Show them the company is sensitive to the professional development of the staff,” he says. “Show that there is room for advancement and development, not only to enhance the company, but development that will advance this person.”
Training and making sure everyone understands how their role impacts every project is something Gurland believes is a necessity when it comes to retaining talent. “You have to make them feel like they’re part of the team,” she says. “When we have new hires, once a month I talk to them, tell them who we are, why we’re excited about what we do, and why their job means something, how it impacts everyone, and why their job matters. I want them to enjoy their work. Make it fun, thank them for doing a great job, bring customers around and let them interact with the people actually doing the jobs. It’s amazing how much customers like interacting with them — not just taking them on a tour so the pressmen feel like they’re in a zoo, but engaging with them, which is building excitement.”
Training can’t just be a one-and-done event either. To retain top talent, companies need to have a system in place that allows them to learn and grow and add to their skill sets. Today’s most talented and sought-after employees are the ones who are always looking for ways to improve, and if your shop isn’t offering it to them, they will go find it somewhere else. “Many companies make the mistake of looking at training as a one-time event that usually occurs at the start of a job,” says Marin. “However, there’s a lot to learn after this initial training. Organizations should concentrate more on continuing learning and development opportunities for all employees, rather than providing one-time, job-specific training.”
It’s not just outside training that should be offered. Look for opportunities to set up mentorships, where seasoned — but aging — craftsmen can pass along their decades of knowledge and skills to the next generation. Allow new workers to rotate between departments to learn about the entire process, rather than just a single element. Make passing along institutional knowledge something both the veterans and the newbies will enjoy, rather than something they are forced to endure.
The bottom line? Hiring and retaining talented staff isn’t going to get any easier. Printers need to start looking outside of the industry for fresh new talent, hiring not for skill sets or knowledge, but for passion and a willingness to learn. Talk to schools, cultivate relationships with community groups, participate in job fairs, offer open houses and tours — be an ambassador for the high-tech, creative, and exciting industry that is print and graphics. Set up mentoring programs and continuing education opportunities to help pass on institutional knowledge that is slowly walking away. And then be willing to compensate these highly sought-after individuals for the time and expertise they are dedicating to growing your business. This is the blueprint for a vibrant, innovative future.
Back to School Isn't Just for Kids
In a recent article from the Women in Print Alliance, Adriane Harrison, vice president of Human Resources Consulting at PRINTING United Alliance, explores why the idea of "back to school" isn't just for children. However, it's important for adults to develop their skills each year to advance their careers. She suggests developing a career development plan. Here are the steps you can take to make your own career development plan.
- Think about the jobs that you want in the future. Ask yourself if you want to ascend on the same path or are you ready for a big change? Do you want your next role to be instrumental in moving you along a path or do you want your next role to have a fundamental importance that is not so much about the path, but may actually be the destination?
- Look at the skills needed for the role(s) that you want. For each skill that you identify as necessary for a role, think about the level of proficiency needed for that role and rank it on a scale of 1 through 5, with one being a skill that isn’t very necessary, and five for a skill that is essential for getting and succeeding in that job.
- Perform an honest assessment of your skills. Include all the skills that you identified in the roles you want to achieve but go ahead and add any additional skills that you believe you possess. Rank your proficiency for each skill on a 1 through 5 scale, with one being the least proficient and five being the most proficient.
- Now, match them up. If you are a “1” on a particular skill, but the role you want puts that skill at a “5,” then it’s time to go “back to school.” This might mean taking classes, maybe even getting a certificate or degree. But it also might mean training. Supplement training experiences with business classes online or at a local school.
- Once you have identified the skill that you want to hone, and plan about how to improve those skills, determine what you need to execute the plan. This might be money, child care, or other elements. Then create a timeline. Try to be realistic and keep in mind that “life” happens, which means leaving a little more time than you think it may take to execute your plan.
What You Need to Know About iLEARNING+
When it comes to training and continuing education, finding the time for staff to be away from the production floor can be a major hurdle. But the iLEARNING+ platform seeks to remove that challenge from the board, allowing anyone to access any module, any time, and learn at their own pace.
The iLEARNING+ platform is part of PRINTING United Alliance, offering members classes that range from introductory courses perfect for someone new to the industry, to advanced deep dives into subjects that even seasoned professionals will find engaging. The platform is accessible from any web browser, on any device, any time, and users can start and stop modules at will. This makes it easy to set aside 30-60 minutes a day for staff members to gain meaningful training that will help them both with their productivity, as well as their own personal careers.
Joe Marin, senior vice president, Member Services, PRINTING United Alliance, notes, “The great thing is that this is on-demand learning. You can learn when you have time, from any device, anywhere, 24/7, 365, at your convenience. Learning is like performing any critical job task – don’t try to learn when you’re tired after you’ve worked all day. You should incorporate [it] into your day like any other critical task — that is really the only way to learn effectively.”
Launched last summer, iLEARNING+ is constantly growing, with new courses being added all the time. Some of the more popular modules from the start have been around color management, as well as topics like print industry-specific sales training. But, Marin notes, they are also accepting suggestions for future courses, so if there is something specific you would like your staff to learn, don’t be afraid to let him know.