Confronting Labor Challenges Impacting Printers (2022)

You’ve probably seen the headlines by now: “The Great Resignation” is impacting companies in every sector, from restaurants and retail, to delivery drivers, to office workers, and more. Commercial printers aren’t exempt from this pandemic-era phenomenon, with challenges across the board in hiring — and keeping — qualified staff.

Right now, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 10.4 million open jobs across the country employers are scrambling to try and fill. That is down from an all-time high this past summer, but still represents an ongoing struggle for anyone who has presses and bindery equipment to run, and jobs to get out the door.

It’s also not a shortage impacting all segments of the labor pool equally, which adds to the challenge many printers are facing. According to NCCI Holdings’ Quarterly Economics Briefing, women, in particular, have withdrawn from the workforce at a much faster rate. “At the pandemic’s onset, more women than men exited the labor force,” the report states. “After schools and daycare centers closed, many women stopped working to take care of children or support other family members at home.”

The report continues, “While many women have returned to work since the pandemic’s beginning, the number of women who report being out of the labor force in order to take care of their family has remained high. In May 2021, this group of women accounted for more than 60% of the total drop in the female labor force participation since March 2020, an increase from 38% of the drop at the pandemic’s onset.”

Another population that has seen greater withdrawals from the workforce is the Baby Boomer generation. According to the NCCI report, around 2.6% of that population retired annually between 2016 and 2020, but that number has jumped to 3.3% during the COVID-19 era. Many of those are people 55 and older who lost their jobs due to pandemic layoffs, and decided to retire rather than find new work. In total, the report estimates that at least 500,000 more people have retired in the past year than originally projected.

When it comes to the printing industry specifically, Andrew Paparozzi, chief economist for PRINTING United Alliance, notes, “Labor markets have tightened significantly. As of midyear, 68.8% of the PRINTING United Alliance/NAPCO Research State of the Industry (SOI) Panel report difficulty hiring.

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Production positions (experienced and inexperienced) were cited most often when asked which positions are most difficult to fill, but panel members listed everything from customer service and sales, to IT and accounting, to packing/shipping. Comments such as, “all positions, from the front office to the back dock and everything in-between are difficult to fill,” show that the shortages extend far beyond the plant floor.”

For Dino Scalia, senior VP and managing partner at PrintLink, these statistics quantify exactly what he’s experienced himself. “It’s been a challenge for companies to find qualified hands-on operators to fill critical positions,” he says. “Press and postpress finishing operators are in high demand — the pandemic has affected many firms because a portion of their people are not returning to the workforce. They are either aging out, or have opted to leave the industry completely. This gap was not anticipated, as many programs for training skilled workers in colleges and trade schools were downsized or eliminated prior to the pandemic.”

That said, this isn’t a new problem, notes Brian Regan, president of Semper Group. Rather than create new labor shortages, he says, it has just highlighted the problems more directly. “For close to 20 years now, our industry has lost ground in attracting younger generation workers,” he notes. “As the years slipped by, increasing numbers of high school and post-secondary print programs have gone away.”

As Sales Rebound, So Does The Need for More Workers

In practice, staffing has been a challenge for commercial printers for a number of years now, with the pandemic adding a new layer to the problem. Color Ink President Todd Meissner says, that for his Sussex, Wisconsin-based company, there has been a bit of a shift, especially early in the pandemic. “But we are now back to pre-pandemic staffing levels. Some of the hires are new, replacing individuals who have retired or were laid off.” He notes, “The huge uptick in year-over-year sales volume from Q2 2020 to Q2 2021 has made it a challenge to get back into full gear with staffing.”

Adam Monk, president of McClung Companies in Waynesboro, Virginia, points out that his organization was very lucky to not have to lay anyone off during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen some challenges from the situation. “The only changes we’ve encountered were from employees who no longer wanted to remain in the workforce due to the risks from COVID,” he says. “Even though we have followed all guidelines to maximize safety — and, in most cases, exceeded the requirements — some older employees felt safer retiring or moving out of the workforce. Most of our [staffing]changes were due to this impact,” Monk reports.

“We felt the greatest impact in manufacturing and production roles, particularly hiring in locations such as Wisconsin, where those jobs are in high demand and there is fierce competition for workers,” notes Daren Robarge, executive VP of manufacturing at Quad. He continues, “Within recent months, we have hired hundreds of individuals into our U.S. manufacturing platform, and we are still actively looking to fill about 100 more due to increased volume from organic growth, as well as new business wins.”

That said, there have been a few pain points that have been particularly challenging in the past year, according to Monk, namely finding both new hires who already have the necessary experience to get up and running quickly, as well as those on the other end of the spectrum: new employees to train as apprentices.

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Apprenticeship programs are one thing Regan finds very encouraging — seeing more shops returning to that model of training and educating younger workers. “A growing number of printers are adapting to this reality and becoming more active in reaching out to schools, and explaining what it is like to work at a printing facility,” he says. “Apprenticeship programs are increasing, and the various trade associations are stepping up to help address the issue.”

The labor challenges are also forcing printing companies to look further afield, Scali reports. “The inability to fill vacancies with experienced candidates has necessitated looking out of the area to hopefully attract candidates willing to relocate. Because of the demand for qualified candidates, companies may have to pay higher hourly rates in several key areas.”

Ways to Make Our Industry More Attractive to Job Seekers

So what can employers do to overcome these hurdles? Meissner contends that focusing on areas such as higher wages, better benefits, flexible hours, and better tools can all help attract workers to a commercial print shop over other career options. “Competition has forced us to be more aggressive with our job offerings,” he notes.

Attracting people to the printing industry, and frankly most of the skilled trade industries, is the biggest pain point right now, according to Regan. “And many non-trade industries are just as in need of people as the trades; this competition is driving many innovations in recruitment and how people are approaching it.”

In fact, Monk notes, making the unique benefits your shop can bring to the table part of the initial recruitment process is a great way to attract the highest quality candidates to begin with. “We use a very thorough approach to our recruitment and interview process,” he says. “We want to ensure we are the best fit for the employee, and that we are for them as well. We also take great pride in our company, our pay, and our incentives. We are an ESOP, and we champion that to our interviewees as well.”

Scalia echoes that thought, noting, it’s a job candidate’s market right now, so commercial printers must clearly define the value proposition for applicants when they are considering joining their firms. If the candidates are currently employed in the industry, better hours, flexible work schedules, higher compensation, and stronger benefits could entice them.

“These are short-term fixes though — company culture is critically important in attracting workers who will stay and grow with the company,” he argues. “This is different than pay and benefits. What does the career map look like for an individual? What is the work/life balance policy at the company? Skill sets alone are not the defining reason for attracting top talent.

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“Commercial printers must consider transferable skills and move away from the mindset that a mid-level management position can only be filled by a person with 10 years’ experience in the kind of products they produce.”

For Robarge, retention is a priority at Quad — not just attracting the top talent to apply for jobs, but finding ways to keep them long-term. “We are enhancing our employee recognition program to ensure our team members are acknowledged and rewarded for their hard work,” he points out.

“We also offer a combination of competitive compensation and special benefits, including onsite medical and dental clinics and childcare at some locations, scholarship programs, and career development programs that can be hard to find elsewhere. We regularly evaluate our compensation and benefits to maintain a competitive edge in the marketplace. And we’re also piloting new work schedule options for manufacturing employees to promote a better work/life balance.”

Is There an End in Sight on the Labor Front?

So, is there any end in sight for commercial printers on the labor front? That’s a hard question to quantify, but there are some glimmers of hope.

“Barring another major economic catastrophe — and based on the work that has already started — we should expect to start to see the positive impacts by 2023,” Regan predicts. The balancing act will be the replacement of the retiring workforce with trained workers.

“We are seeing large numbers of skilled workers retiring. Coupled with the 20-year gap in the industry, embracing the need to recruit and fight for its share of the next-gen workers is hitting hard, especially since the average age of workers in printing is in the upper 40s. We will be able to measure the impacts of our new recruitment initiatives if that number starts to go down.”

That said, Scalia believes there won’t be an automatic return to normal for every shop. The ones who succeed will be those employers who embrace the idea that the changes the pandemic has wrought are here to stay, in many instances. “Many companies — in fact, entire industries — have had a tremendous wakeup call brought on by the pandemic,” he says. “No one should buy into the illusion that things are going to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic.

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“Those that will be successful going forward must acknowledge they are going to have to change their perspective relating to talent, company culture, technology investment, and leadership style. Supporting trade and higher-ed programs in their local area that concentrate on developing skilled workers should also be on the minds of industry leaders.”

Paparozzi echoes that thought, noting, “Labor force participation is still falling across America. And, in our industry, the shortages are not just cyclical — they are structural. As one SOI Panel member puts it: ‘Compensation, benefits, flexibility, etc., do not seem to be an issue. It is more a lack of qualified applicants with experience or willingness to learn. Apparently, being an Amazon delivery driver is more exciting than working in a print shop.’”

To attract the best talent — and keep them — that willingness to take a hard look at not just the tangible benefits package, but at the entire organization as a whole and what it brings to the table for a potential new employee, could very well mean the difference between a printing business that continues to thrive, and one that struggles just to keep the doors open and the presses running.

“Signing bonuses and other incentives are important short-term solutions for bringing new people through the doors, but how they are treated over the long-term matters even more,” Robarge stresses.

“The advice I would give to other commercial printers with respect to hiring challenges would be to assess your position and reputation in your region,” Monk advises. “Do you do all that can be done for your workforce, do they appreciate that, and do they communicate that to others in and outside of the industry? Do a critical assessment to see if you are providing an attractive place to work.

“Are you showcasing that from the first impression? Are you offering upward opportunities to your employees, along with ample opportunities to train on new equipment, new processes, etc.? Are you providing workers with the best up-to-date equipment, making their jobs as stress-free as can be? You have to take care of the internal clients, your employees, as much or more than your external clients,” Monk says.

Another thing to keep in mind, according to Meissner, is to look at upgrades to equipment, and not just to enable higher quality or to increase production. “Invest heavily in automation and tools that help employees do their job more efficiently and with less difficulty,” he says. Further, he notes that, “Everyone is in the same boat. Keep your estimating and billing rates in step with rising operating costs overall, so you don’t take a huge profit hit.”

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There are no quick answers,” Paparozzi points out. “Longer term, automation is certainly an option, especially since the labor shortages are structural. And as detailed in the ‘2021-22 State of the Industry Report,ʼ building your company’s brand, crafting an effective employee value proposition, and maximizing employee engagement will insulate companies from even deep, chronic labor shortages.”

Labor challenges aren’t new, and with workers across the board re-evaluating how they balance their professional career with their home life, commercial printers can’t afford to continue to do business as usual when it comes to hiring and retaining staff.

The tight labor market will likely continue to feel the pressure for at least the next several years, making it an ideal time to step back and re-evaluate what’s truly important to both current employees and potential new hires.

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