Staffing and Labor in 2023 and Beyond
It’s not a new problem, no matter how you frame it. Labor. Talent. Hiring. Retaining. 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 existed long before COVID became a part of our collective vocabulary, and they will continue to play a critical role in the success — or failure — of package and label printers for the foreseeable future.
Some of the personnel problems facing the print industry are:
- 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 the last decade of 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 misguided perception that print 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 of these issues, combined with the challenges of a pandemic, a fractured supply chain, and possible recession, are a perfect storm that have left printers of all sizes, and serving all markets, scrambling.
“Not surprisingly, companies in the printing industry will continue to have difficulties in attracting and keeping talent [in 2023],” says Joe Marin, SVP, member services, PRINTING United Alliance. “There is a skills gap, and people with industry experience and technical expertise experience are in increasingly high demand.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t steps printers can take 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.
So, what can you expect in the days and weeks to come? First and foremost, notes David Regan, CEO of print, premedia, graphic, and interactive media industry staffing firm Semper Group, there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. “I think we are in flux,” he says. “I think we are moving towards 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 VanSant, founder of marketing consulting company Bubble & Hatch, and chairman of the Print and Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF). “There [are] going to be opportunities to recruit new 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, however, doesn’t happen organically — it has to be a concerted effort that everyone prioritizes. Leslie Gurland, EVP of global sales and marketing for LUX Global Label, says finding these talented individuals is “the million-dollar question. I think we have to put a full-on effort into engaging the next generation,” she says. “And not just printers, but for manufacturing in general — it’s a bigger issue. 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?”
Job seekers won’t just walk through the door. Rather, Gurland notes, packaging and label printers need to make an effort to go to them. “We need to go to the schools and find the kids who aren’t going to college,” she says. “And we need to tell them this is a career path where you can make decent money.”
She points to a New Jersey school that partnered with an OEM to sponsor the school, and install a press to help students learn a trade. But that kind of engagement isn’t something a small label or packaging printer can tackle on their own — which is where an industry-wide effort can help. That said, Gurland believes there are things the average shop do to bridge that gap, including 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 group to scout for talent is one many printers might be overlooking: immigrants and shelters. Gurland says 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 overcome that roadblock, and printers can gain access to a pool of hard-working individuals who are eager to learn. Also, talk to local shelters, such as those for homeless populations, or those dedicated to helping victims of domestic violence. Offer to have a career day at the shelter, and provide training to anyone who wants it.
Again, Gurland says this isn’t a side job. “[Recruiting] is a full-time job,” she remarks. “You really need to have someone in HR dedicated to it, or at least taking a kid interested in HR and making this type of outreach into their internship.”
Then, get the word out. “If you look outside the industry, you see that there is no marketing to those applying [for jobs],” Brenner observes. “You see green technology, you see software, you see medical, you see IT. These industries — even construction — are constantly talked about in the mainstream, through ads, on social media.”
To compete with these industries, it’s not enough to invest in the latest technologies, such as inkjet presses and automated systems. 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 start taking today to improve the labor pool for the entire print industry. As more talented, passionate youth are drawn to the industry, they will in turn tell others about it, which will raise even more attention. 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, and are not broadly put out to the public to understand the value of print. Relatively speaking, 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 have to 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. Adam Brenner, president of staffing company National Printing and Packaging Specialists (NPPS) 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.”
“I think any type of manufacturing is running into this same problem,” says Gurland. “People don’t want to work the second and third shifts, and that’s been a challenge as well. There have been discussions within LUX on how to handle this, and we even increased wages substantially to entice people to come work here.
“A dollar will make a difference — a manufacturing worker will move for $2 an hour,” she continues. “They have to take care of their families, and prices are up for everyone, so you have to make sure they can cover that.”
Brenner does point out, however, that throwing money at people isn’t the answer either. First and foremost, 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 uplifting 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 hire just to have a warm body in front of a machine, and be prepared to fairly compensate the highly talented and motivated people who can be trained if they don’t already know the business.
Levenson also notes that, especially after the last few years, printers who want to be competitive for the best available talent need to be flexible. “The pandemic demonstrated that for certain types of jobs, flexible opportunities are attractive to employees: flextime, working from home, childcare and eldercare support, childbirth leave, professional development, etc.,” he adds. “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 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.
“One of the challenges printers face is that they aren’t investing in new technologies and equipment, and they are going to have a harder time recruiting,” says VanSant. “They are staying with what they have, and because of that they’re going to have a smaller pool of talent to draw from.”
But once those individuals have joined the company, keeping them isn’t a simple prospect either. 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 — development around the field in general, such as understanding the role of print, and the different technologies.”
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 be a one-and-done event either. To retain top talent, companies should build a system that allows employees 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 find it elsewhere.
“Many companies make the mistake of looking at training as a one-time event that usually occurs at the start of a job when an employee is given the fundamentals,” 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.”
This goes beyond outside training. Look for opportunities to set up mentorships within the company, 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 a single element. Make these learning experiences 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 consistently 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 leaving. 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.
Toni McQuilken is the senior editor for the printing and packaging group.