Filling the void: home schooling for print skills

Jez Abbott
Monday, November 23, 2015

All this talk of there being a shortage of skills in the print and packaging industries is rubbish, according to Label Apeel managing director Amy Chambers: “It’s not that there’s a shortage – it’s a vacuum, a huge void.”

And it’s perhaps the biggest blot on an otherwise great year for the Label Apeel, which saw the company grow 16% and boast its best ever monthly sales in September – a figure that’s off the record and not for quoting, but big, very big. That cloud, insists Chambers, is even more worrying for the wider industry, and one way of dispersing the pall over personnel is through training.

Back in August Label Apeel set up an in-house scheme, called the L-School Print Academy, to try and solve the difficulty of recruiting people with flexo label skills around its base in Leicestershire while upskilling existing staff within the Label Apeel fold at Thurmaston. 

The challenge

“It always was and still is very hard to recruit people with the right skills,” she explains. “There are very good staff within the print and packaging job market at any one time, but they are few and far between and we are all fighting to dip into this same tiny pool of experienced professionals. 

“The industry is doing absolutely nothing to support the future of print; there is no skills development. Many of the print schools have closed while lots of those still going have got rid of their presses and other equipment. Where will people get hands-on experience?”

To make her point, Chambers draws attention to the print school at Leicester College, which is great on theory, but has no presses, so students sit in classrooms most of the day. For a practically minded person like Chambers, who is a technologist by training and focused on the nuts-and bolts of how things work, this sets alarms ringing.

But it’s not all bad, she says, flagging up the work of the Label Academy, launched in response to the very reduction in the number of dedicated printing colleges she is talking about. This, she says, has done a “fantastic job of addressing the void and the need to standardise training”. But it doesn’t meet the hands-on practical needs of staff across the industry.

The lack of drive and direction in plugging the skills gulf also flies in the face of business logic; according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, apprenticeships alone contributed £34bn to the UK economy last year, with every £1 of public money spent on training resulting in a £21 boost for the national economy. 

More apprentices and better training for those already in the industry would add even more to the collective bottom line, says Chambers.

The method

Chambers and company owner Stuart Kellock looked at what was good about existing courses and training schemes before homing in on what they should offer. 

But launching a training scheme has financial implications and Label Apeel decided it needed to tap into matchfunding totalling about £20,000 from the government-backed GrowthAccelerator scheme, which offers support to businesses with the potential to improve and grow.

Label Apeel launched its L-School Print Academy in summer by recruiting two apprentices. It took on three more trainee printers recently and targets youngsters with GCSE English and maths grade C or above and a design GCSE. A and AS levels or BTec diploma qualifications are also welcome and in their first year with the company apprentices are rotated around the business.

They work in the press hall and warehousing as well in design and accounts. Once the induction year is over they choose a specialism and sign on as an apprentice with Leicester College, although the onus is on workplace training.

One day a month is spent at college, and after three years finessing skills staff have the opportunity to move into supervisory roles, sales, planning or production management. For staff already on the career ladder the L-School Print Academy is being used to structure progress. 

And the focus is as much on the continuing professional development of existing staff. Several members, some of whom have been with the company eight years or more, are using the academy to diversify their skills sets and therefore improve the flexibility of the company’s workforce. Machine operators, for example, are learning the creative skills behind art and design.

“Print is something you see, touch and feel, it’s about a product that is never just a label,” explains Chambers. “It’s important we teach staff at all levels to see the wider picture; it’s not just a label, it’s a bottle, it’s a cap, it fits into the wider design family, and practitioners have to deal with production staff, brand owners and designers. This is why we train people across the board and not merely about what’s in front of their nose.”

The result 

Chambers and Kellock are aiming to recruit four apprentices to the academy a year and offer structured and systematic training to staff at all levels of their careers.

 “But ultimately we would like to offer training to the rest of the industry and, yes, even competitors. What is the point of having an academy if you don’t share the learning across the industry? Ultimately we are all here to ensure the print industry survives and flourishes.”

For chambers there is another big benefit of raising its game on training: prestige. “Being recognised as a company that offers training every bit as good as its products, we hope, will reflect well on the business in the long term. This in turn will raise awareness of Label Apeel as a lead thinker in the development of print and packaging. We want to not only produce beautiful labels but be seen as thinking about our business and the people who make it work,” she explains.

There were perhaps a few mild sceptics in the company when the academy launched, but everyone has “seen the improvements and recognised the benefits”, she says. Better-trained staff – young and not so young – have ushered in greater workforce stability, higher quality work and fewer mistakes through a better understanding of the job. More structured training has also made the shopfloor a happier place.

Label Apeel has been running job satisfaction surveys for three years. Last year 94% of the staff said they enjoyed their work – up from 64% a year before. Chambers and Kellock see a direct correlation between job happiness and skills training.

“Such a high percentage speaks for itself; you wouldn’t get that with a bunch of old lags who have been marking time for years. They have seen the significant changes we’ve made and the business grow thanks to our onus on skills and training, which has been opened up to all employees,” says Chambers.

“Everybody in the business, not just young people fresh off the street, has the opportunity to train and be part of our roadmap to excellence.” 


Label Apeel 

Location Leicester 

Inspection host Managing director Amy Chambers

Size Turnover: £4.2m; Staff: 44 

Established 1994

Products Flexo and digital print and design of self-adhesive labels for clients in the FMCG, retail and beers, wines and spirits sectors

Kit HP Indigo WS6800, Digicon series 2 and series 3 machines, the latter with foiling and embossing, and two MPS flexo presses

Inspection focus Setting up an in-house training scheme


Don’t do it for the short term “If you want cheap labour this is the worst way of doing it,” says Label Apeel owner Stuart Kellock. “Don’t expect to see a return on your training for three to five years.”

Recruit trainees you like Basic qualifications are important but attitude is vital: the people you train must share core values with the business. “You can have all the technology in the world but that’s not what makes magic happen,” says managing director Amy Chambers. “That comes from people.”

Seek expert help Talk to training providers such as colleges and other institutions like the BPIF, Institute of Packaging and the Label Academy as well as public-sector advisory groups including the National Apprenticeship Service and the goverment’s GrowthAccelerator scheme. 

Make training fun, relevant and motivating Training should offer variety, a clear career path and the knowledge that staff are being invested in, while incentives and benefits boost motivation.

Use training to promote your company Market the fact your company is taking an industry lead by launching an in-house training scheme, which will reinforce its skills base and highlight its onus on good-quality service and products.


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