Is the decline in skilled print workers a cause for concern?
Wednesday, February 15, 2023
On the face of it, statistics released recently that revealed the number of skilled tradespeople working in the print sector fell by 73% between 2006 and 2021 seem alarming.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed a huge fall in the number of industry workers classed as skilled print workers over the past 15 years.
These skilled workers – pre-press technicians, printers, post-press workers, and print machine assistants – fell from 112,300 in 2006 to just 30,500 in 2021.
And while the departure of so many traditionally skilled people is a big loss for the industry, and difficult to replace, there are clearly many other factors at play due to the immense scale of change seen in print since 2006.
Automation has gathered pace, meaning fewer shopfloor staff overall are required to man machines these days. Multi-skilled operators are also often carrying out different jobs elsewhere in the business if their machine is idle for any period, and are increasingly trained on the software side too – having digital skills has become progressively important over time.
Nick Benkovich, vice president, global portfolio product management at eProductivity Software (ePS), highlighted the increasing need for highly automated software at the company’s Connect event in Las Vegas last month (see p11 for analysis).
“When I started in print, every machine in the shop had an operator. Today I will go into shops that have 60 pieces of equipment and 38 operators, because some aren’t always used and they’re cross-training people,” Benkovich said during a Connect press session.
“The expectation is there is no such thing as a singular role in a print facility anymore – the guy that does scheduling also does planning and sometimes does billing. That’s the world we live in, and that’s what these tools are starting to provide for us.”
IPIA general manager Brendan Perring says the industry’s continuing innovation means many machines are now essentially “plug-and-play”, which has effectively removed the need for skilled labour across a number of print and finishing processes.
Some print businesses, he says, have hundreds of staff – very few of whom would be classed as high-skilled workers.
He adds this is no indictment of the skills of people working in print, but rather the reality that few people need the weeks – or years – of formal training that classes a role as ‘skilled’.
“Now you can have a very complex, highly powered finishing or print device, which needs just three or four days of training and being shown how it works at maximum, and you’d be able to pick it up and run with it,” he says.
HP Inc Large Format Business general manager Daniel Martinez says HP is continually trying to simplify its products so they are easier to manage.
“We’re trying to make it easy for PSPs [print service providers] to be able to hire people and train them quickly, so that they can use the products more quickly.
“In line with that, one of the big features on PrintOS that we’ve really revamped with PPSP [HP’s new Professional Print Service Plans] is the Learn app, an online certification process that any of the employees of a PSP or PSP owner can use to learn how to develop new applications on our products.”
He adds: “We’re definitely seeing that the focus of our work is transitioning from very hard-ware centric to much more solutions centric, and our response to that is making it simple, both in terms of running and acquiring our products and solutions, and also learning and evolving with them so that you get the most out of them.”
Komori was among the earliest to talk about smart factories, in the mid-1990s with its Printroom 2000 concept of a highly automated press hall, where technology had taken over many of the processes that had previously required skilled operators along with hours of manual effort. This vision is now an increasing reality.
“Our industry has made a huge shift during the last 10-15 years, standardising all related processes. Not only in pre-press and print, but also in the post-press area,” says Peter Minis, marketing manager at Komori Europe.
“Where traditionally printing was labour intensive and highly dependent on indi- vidual skillsets, it’s now an industrial and process driven technology. The motivation being the need to create a predictable and repeatable end result in the most efficient manner.
“Digitisation and automation naturally reduce the requirements for the more traditional experience-based skills.”
He adds: “We have moved away from laborious and expensive makeready procedures, where highly skilled operators were needed to manually input settings based on their experience and judgement.
“From a production manager’s point of view this was highly problematic as individual operators used different working methods, with corresponding differences in productivity, quality, and consistency.
“With on press technology of today able to manage colour, register, and – at least in the case of Komori – the option of PDF comparators, operators can trust in and rely on high accuracy automatic quality control systems.”
Traditional skills are still important, Minis stresses, but manufacturers have had to move with the changing industry.
“If you take a close look at offset printing, the actual process essentially remains almost unchanged. Basic knowledge of the offset process is still a valuable asset in our industry.
“Given the reality of a changing workforce however, and a smaller skill base to rely on, equipment manufacturers have had to develop technology which takes care of the more manual processes as well as designing quality management systems to monitor job content and colour, including automatic control and adjustment systems.”
Ryan Miles, managing director of Heidelberg UK, says automation does replace or compensate for certain skills, and results in functions previously performed by people now being done by robotics, meaning fewer people are required today than were needed historically.
“At the same time, it is true that production staff require different skills in order to successfully integrate with automated technologies and to get the best from newer equipment. For this reason, it’s very important to invest in training to retain a high level of skilled staff.
“At Heidelberg, we have made it our mission to support printers and share our decades of expertise and innovative ideas with them, via the Heidelberg Training Centre. We train printers and their employees on the technical product knowledge and the latest industry knowhow they need, to keep up with the dynamic development of the market.”
Miles adds that the sharp fall in the number of ‘skilled’ workers is due to a combination of factors – not only automation, but also the consolidation of the commercial print segment and related business closures, “and the perception of the younger generation who believe print is not an attractive career” in comparison with digital media, for example.
Julie Pollard, director at Mercury Search and Selection, points out the importance of defining what is meant by ‘skilled’ workers, as “not all workers who are skilled are ‘skilled workers’,” she says.
“That is to say, that traditionally, skilled workers were considered as those who had gained a ‘time served trade’ via an apprenticeship. For a variety of reasons, it is perceived to be less of a requirement for the length and depth of training involved in becoming this kind of skilled worker.
“If you look at conventional print processes such as litho and flexo, you will see that over the last 20 years the level of automation in the operation and control of the machines has significantly increased. This has no doubt reduced the demand of the hands on and problem-solving skills associated with earlier equipment.”
She adds: “The passage of time has certainly had an impact on the numbers. The decline in the number of print employers and especially those investing in long-term apprenticeship programmes is probably a 40-year trend now so with each generation retiring we are seeing the following generations with fewer ‘time served’ staff.”
While print apprenticeships are on the decline, they do remain a valuable way of finding and nurturing young talent, and some printers still offer several each year while trade bodies continue to shout about their value to the industry. National Apprenticeship Week earlier this month also highlighted the various merits and achievements of apprenticeships.
But the evolution of print is clearly playing a part in the changing entry routes and training and, ultimately, the number of ‘skilled’ workers coming into the sector, Pollard says.
“Employers want a fast return and typically want employees up to speed and productive as fast as possible and this can largely be achieved through in-house and machinery supplier-led training.
“It has long been argued that the advantage of the apprenticeship, ‘time served’ route was to build a better understanding of the ‘why’ rather than just the ‘how’.
“Of course, this was much more important when the individual was making subjective judgement and adjusting a machine manually so perhaps it can be argued that traditionally ‘skilled workers’ are not as critical as they were and therefore their decline is inevitable.”
Many of the ‘skilled’ print workers that have retired since 2006 have not been replaced and skills have therefore been lost that way. But it can also be difficult to find young talent to replace them because – as Pollard puts it – “the industry faces challenges in making print attractive”, although she says all manufacturing sectors have the same issue.
“Manufacturing has become a dirty word as successive governments from the early 1990s have pushed university and degree courses as the ‘desirable’ option at the expense of vocational training and qualification.
“Historically print was considered a ‘dirty’ environment. Obviously the rise of digital print has combatted that but even in ‘wet ink’ sectors typical production areas are incredibly clean so we clearly need to reinforce that message.
“Going further, often, younger workers are looking for engagement and context so actually pitching the roles and industry in the context of what it does could be useful; for example there is a large sector of print which is actually marketing communication/fulfilment which is a different perspective.”
If print can successfully sell its many modern benefits to young people and encourage them to join those 30,500 ‘skilled’ workers that were still in the industry as of 2021, then they will likely find themselves in high demand. Litho printers, particularly in the carton sector, for example “are gold dust and snapped up instantly”, Pollard reports.
But for everyone else, despite the headline figures, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Pollard concludes: “The decline in ‘skilled workers’ in the traditional sense is not the same as a decline in skilled workers. The print industry has very many skilled people doing great things. Long may it continue.”
Automation is both a loss and a gain for the industry
Karly Lattimore, managing director of training, BPIF
The advancements in technology leading to the automation of many tasks has resulted in a decrease in the number of jobs available, particularly for specialised roles, paired with the rise of digital media and e-commerce has had a direct impact on the industry leading to fewer jobs.
It can be argued that the use of more automated equipment is both a loss and gain. On one hand, newer machines that require less technical [skill] means that fewer workers are needed to operate machines, resulting in fewer jobs available. Additionally, the industry may lose some of the craftsmanship that comes with traditional skills.
However, automation drives increased productivity, with more accurate and consistent results.
Overall, it is important to find a balance between utilising automation to increase productivity and efficiency while also providing opportunities for workers to develop the skills the industry demands.
Advanced technological skills are essential for the industry including skills in areas such as digital printing, pre-press and post-press, as well as software for design, production and management. This will help the industry to keep pace with the technological changes and the increasing demand for digital printing. However, traditional skills such as litho printing and finishing are still in demand and play an important role. These skills are often required for high-end printing jobs, such as those for fine art prints, packaging, and other specialised applications.
Engaging with apprenticeships is important as apprenticeships provide an opportunity for the industry to attract and retain skilled workers. As an industry, if we emphasise the benefits of the print industry and promoting the modern technology and equipment, as well as providing training and development opportunities, we can go a long way to make ourselves more attractive to skilled workers and help to attract and retain the skilled workers that it needs to remain competitive in the market.
How concerning do you find print’s skills decline?
Tim Smith, CEO, CustomerKNECT
“There’s been an ongoing decline in skilled tradespeople through an ageing and retiring workforce, with a notable absence of entrants at the other end of new graduates and apprentices, although we are supporting three colleagues via the government’s apprenticeship levy scheme this year. Whilst advancing technology is automating and to some extent simplifying processes, it often nevertheless converts raw engineering skills into intimidating computing skills. Our new Hunkeler folder is almost 50ft long and runs at 16 A4s per second – exciting to our FD but intimidating, perhaps, to a traditional MBO operator.”
Liz Smith, managing director, LG Davis
“The statistics, unfortunately, don’t surprise me. Automation is rightly helping the industry evolve, but it will not replace the skilled tradespeople needed on the shopfloor. More emphasis needs to be placed on promoting print as a prospective career within education settings to help change the perception of traditional industries. At LG Davis we are seeing great results by offering work experience opportunities. We made the strategic decision to recruit and train our own apprentices. By being at the forefront of the next generation of workers we are helping to pass on much needed skills and grow the business.”
Laurence Hobbs, sales director, Brightside Print & Design
“I can’t say I find this statistic particularly surprising. The industry’s steady embrace of automation was inevitably going to have this effect. At Brightside Print & Design our experience has been to develop our staff’s skillset internally and continually adapt to the industry changes as they present themselves. Ultimately, I don’t see the findings to be detrimental to the print world or its future. As long as those entering the trade continue to have a good work ethic, a keen eye for detail and a sense of pride in their craft, the training and development will always be accessible to them.”
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