This is a topic that I have heard thrown cautiously around the workplace from time to time... not just at Old Trail Printing, but ever since I started working (a whopping 11 years ago now). I heard it mentioned as a server in restaurants, as an intern for the state, as a customer service rep for a credit card company and now, as a marketing assistant at a printing company. So what is all the sensitive whispering about? Why does it seem that the term “aging workforce” is 1) a necessary politically correct term for people nearing the age of retirement, 2) something we should be whispering about and 3) something we should fear? Is it like global warming- an intangible thing that people want to do something about and either never do or we think that if we ignore it enough and only whisper about it it wont gain enough momentum to destroy our existence, our industry?
An aging workforce should not be something anyone in management should fear unless they are not confident in their employee's abilities to learn and evolve- an issue that should have been a key factor in their original hiring anyway. Specifically from the viewpoint of someone in a trade-focused industry: printing, I can understand and even rationalize the slight hint of panic that shows up on the faces of those in management when I asked about this topic. The printing industry used to be a very popular field to go into, back in the 70s and 80s. Now, high schools students are barely even aware of what printing companies are, let alone what they do. If asked, I would assume that over 90% of high school students would say FedEx Kinkos or The UPS Store are “printing companies”. This means there is a huge, unnerving lack of education in our school systems. They are no longer directed at teaching students about specific trades- jobs that NEED to be filled to keep basic life “givens” functioning, like electricity, printing, heat, etc. Instead, students are driven by standard testing scores and then by undergraduate admission acceptances.
Looking back at my high school experience, I cannot recall a single opportunity to focus on “a trade” rather than “an education”. I was only aware of the printing industry because my family owns a company. There was no mention of it, unless you were perhaps on the yearbook committee, but even then I don't think they “learned about printing”.
Realizing this, even I become a bit unnerved for the future the printing industry, and it really has nothing to do with me. Yes I am invested in the general success of my family and their endeavors, but I have no stake in the company... so why should I be uneasy? Why do I now feel like I, too, should whisper about the topic and fear it? Is it because I don't have confidence in the employees at Old Trail Printing to adapt and embrace the new technological changes rapidly taking over the way we work? No- not at all! They are skilled, educated, and adaptable. Actually, we have multiple employees who have made this transition successfully. Both the company and the employee have benefitted greatly from their willingness to learn. So what is it? I think it is because I am the youngest person here, at the ripe age of 27, and there are no resumes flooding our mailbox. I am curious if other trade-centered companies are experiencing the same effect.
So, we have identified the problem: young adults are unaware of the opportunity, they are under-educated about them, and the industry workforce is getting older. Now, what to do about it? Well, about four years ago there was an article written on this exact topic by Frank Romano for WhatTheyThink. He cited sources and information that was staggering- approximately 40,000 graphic design majors with 3,500 graduating annually and jobs for about 7 of them. WOW! These numbers, all of them, have obviously increased as technology and the internet have taken off and become very much a necessity in everyone's jobs and lives. However, I do not think I would be at fault by saying that there are still not enough jobs for all of these graduates... or are there?
A recent discussion with our plant manager opened my eyes a bit. He went to view and test a new machine that is revolutionizing the way printers score and die cut jobs. Usually my eyes gloss over during a conversation like this- I mean, I understand it but it has no relevance to myself personally... I don't create, let alone score and cut jobs. But as he explained how the machine works, I realized, well, we both realized, that a new kind of employee is needed for this job. The software used is a graphic-based application and therefore a person able to learn graphic design or already educated in graphic design would be ideal- they can calibrate the machine to run more efficiently. For example, our manager used the machine by going step by step and inputting the information given to him. It took 59 seconds for the machine to cut and score one sheet. When calibrated by a graphic-trained operator, the same job took 37 seconds to finish one sheet- that is a 22 second difference. That is HUGE! Think of how more efficient and quickly jobs can be completed with that difference. Think of the profit potential, the potential to increase the number of jobs the company can take on. Now THAT is staggering!
So, perhaps we should be looking to recruit these graphic artists. This machine is not the first, nor the last, that is run off a graphic-based application. Graphic artists are no longer needed just to design a job, they are needed to run the machines now too. In the article, Frank begs that the larger companies within the industry, and the organizations that support the industry foster and fund education for printers, not graphic designers. Four years later, I beg to differ- does Frank? I don't know, but I think the whole situation and crisis needs to be re-evaluated. Yes the printing industry as a whole has lost educational momentum, but if we can get graphic art courses to incorporate printing as a small part of their curriculum, then maybe, just maybe more young professionals will start looking to the industry for post-graduation employment, as designers and pressmen. If this happens, we could find ourselves saying, “What aging workforce?”
Written by Julianne Kaercher, Social Media/Marketing Assistant
“Don't underestimate me because of my age- you have no idea what I can do.”