One of the longest threads I have ever seen is on the LinkedIn Group “Print Production Professionals.” The discussion is headlined “Any young Production folks coming up these days? Seems all of us print people are older, and there’s nobody to teach or to care. Is basic printing (Pocket Pal) still taught? thoughts?” As I write this, there are almost 100 comments and there is no end in sight.

Ironically, this subject is an age-old subject for our industry, which is, how do we deal with the approaching shortage of skilled workers. But the problem is two-fold. First we have to acknowledge the problem and then we have to deal with it. Not everyone wants to acknowledge the problem because the printing industry is in decline.

Part of the problem is that the projections from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that printing jobs will decline by 8% and prepress jobs by 18%, which is misleading. According to the Canadian Printing Industries Sector Council (CPISC) nearly half of all employees are approaching retirement age, with 30 percent of all industry employees between the ages of 46 to 54 years and 19 percent older than 55 years of age. Therefore, even if the number of jobs declines, if half the existing staff retires, there will be huge opportunities or gaps in staffing.

This is compounded by a lack of on the job training. In NAPL’s Organizational Development & Compensation Study only 13% of companies spent more than 1% of their annual revenue on training. How much training do leading companies offer staff? Some experts have argued for figures as high as 5–6%, but the available statistics show that training across all industries has averaged between 2 and 2.5% of payroll for most of this decade, with leading companies spending as much as 3%.

But the greatest issue is that the graphic arts industry is simply not attracting young people. Graphic arts and printing programs in high schools and vocational schools are disappearing. During a recent assignment to evaluate the curriculum of a university, I learned that “feeder programs” or programs in vocational schools and high school printing programs are disappearing. While visiting this 4-year school, I learned that there used to be 15 local high schools and vocational schools driving students into their program – now there are only 5.

It’s not that we don’t have the training materials or teachers, there are 4 and 2 year colleges, vocational schools, and high schools. There are also organizations such as GAERF with programs such as PrintED/SkillsUSA. The Graphic Arts Education and Research Foundation (GAERF) is an organization whose mission is to advance knowledge and education in the field of graphic communications by supporting programs that prepare the workforce of the future. It was founded in 1983 by the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL), NPES The Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies and the Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (PIA/GATF).

But the problem is that there are limited funds, limited interest and a decline in new educational initiatives. However there is one notable exception, which is the Xerox School to Career program. According to Bob Hivish, National Segment Manager, US Customer Operations, Public Sector, “Xerox’s School to Career was designed to provide high school students alternative education opportunities to acquire the skills and knowledge to succeed in the graphic communications industry preparing them with production, workflow, academic and hands-on training.” And as anyone who has every taught will recognize part of the success comes from encouraging them to create their own graphic arts pieces. The latest success story comes from Xerox in Philadelphia. If you have not seen the YouTube video “Philadelphia Students Train in Graphic Arts Career,” I recommend you check it out.

I think the bottom line is that we need to change the perception of the industry from a dirty, filthy industry to a modern, hi-tech industry. And I think we need to expand the training curriculums from just here’s how you operate this machine, to here’s how you measure and manage the process and here’s how you sell print, communication and marketing services. What do you think?

Howard Fenton is a Senior Technology Consultant at NAPL. Howie advises commercial printers, in-plants, and manufacturers on workflow management, operations, digital services, and customer research. He is a paid contributor to this blog.