Latest industry age statistics don’t tell the whole story

The average age of a print industry worker has fallen, according to new data sourced by the BPIF. Previously estimated at 48, the organisation has analysed the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics – obtained via a Freedom of Information request as the data is not generally published – and revealed that the average has now dropped to around 43.

Furthermore, the most common age band in the industry according to the data, which refers to 2015, is now 35 to 44. This is down a bracket from the 45 to 54 recorded in the last comparable data, which looked at 2013.

While on the face of it these figures might suggest that the industry is starting to take on and attract more young people, additional statistics suggest this is not the case. The BPIF also found that 8.4% of the industry’s workforce are under the age of 24, down slightly from the 8.5% recorded two years prior.

A number of factors have contributed to the swing in the average age, including the fact that there are 200 fewer companies and 6,000 fewer employees in the printing industry than there were two years previously.

“The structure of the industry has changed and there are fewer of those very longstanding high-volume printers, particularly web-offset, which would have typically had significant numbers of very longstanding employees that were perhaps a little bit older,” says BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold.

Some older people suddenly finding themselves out of work are taking early retirement and, on top of this, the trend of family-owned printers being handed down through the generations is not as prevalent as it once was and many of these firms are shutting up shop when the owner retires.

But companies with strong succession planning in place are in a much better place to live on. Bringing new people into the fold early – particularly to enable plenty of time for older, skilled workers to help pass on their knowledge before they retire – is a key part of ensuring a company can survive and thrive in the future. An experienced and trusted business is more likely to be of interest to potential buyers if the owner decides to move on.

“I don’t believe that any business that is not investing in staff now is going to survive in the long-term,” says Leslie Gibson, managing director of Frip Finishing, which has recently taken on two new apprentices after successfully recruiting four in 2016.

Many print firms have found that delivering apprenticeships to young people with a view to offering them full-time jobs upon completion has been an effective way to futureproof, and a number of businesses also actively recruit university graduates.

“Younger people bring a different outlook to a business in terms of adapting to change and they are more technologically aware. The way that we work with our machines is different and everything now is computer-driven,” says Gibson.

More to be done

While there has been a major drive over the past few years from organisations including the BPIF and The Printing Charity to inspire more young people to consider print as a career, Fespa UK associate director Peter Kiddell believes more needs to be be done.

“We are doing our best to encourage young people by inviting undergraduates and graduates along to events that we’re holding this year, and not charging them to go. We’re allocating a specific percentage of the seats to students and lecturers because we realise we’ve got to get them involved.

“Printers should be forming partnerships with their local schools, colleges and universities. Once you’ve got young people walking around a printing company then they’re asking questions and that’s generating the interest – it’s up to us to invite students to come along and have a look.”

Unite assistant general secretary Tony Burke says promoting print at educational establishments could also help the industry to attract “the brightest and the best”.

“Because of cutbacks, schools don’t have the careers advice services that they perhaps used to have, so the industry needs to be selling itself. We’d like to see more done, and to see more people take on apprentices.”

Jarrold believes the industry is moving in the right direction, particularly since the Apprenticeship Levy was introduced in April.

“We continue to see a strong uptake on apprenticeship training and we think that is likely to continue and grow more still.

“I think there is also a rebalancing a little bit away from classical graduate routes towards more vocational training and I think part of the reason for that is that the average student debt is now around £44,000.”

It remains to be seen whether the impact of the Apprenticeship Levy will have reduced the average age of the industry further still next time the figures are updated, but Kiddell believes that print’s engagement with young people will inevitably start to increase regardless.

“The use of robots is bound to increase and we will quite probably evolve into a younger workforce over time because the skills that older people have are great in understanding the issues, but we need people with modern skills who can achieve what the more experienced people want.

“But it will be a partnership and we will still have people who are older because the pensionable age is growing. It’s going to be evolution rather than revolution but the evolution is going to be pretty quick in the next five to 10 years as automation and digital technologies are used more.”

Jarrold concludes that, whether the proportion of young people in the industry rises or not, the average age now sounds about right.

“43 reflects a fairly balanced mixture of age cohorts in those different groups so I’m not sure I’d expect it to either come down or go up significantly now.”


We need to highlight the opportunities in the sector

lovellNeil Lovell, chief executive, The Printing Charity 

Although the industry actively champions the sector as a career choice for young people, we know the message is not getting through as much as we would like.

One of the challenges is overcoming a negative perception of what the sector offers. That goes for young people and their parents, too. There are routes for young people to take, from the highly technical to the highly creative. We need to create materials and tell our story in a clearer way and I guess be more confident about our sector.

Some sectors are easier to grasp, such as retail or financial services, but with print it’s more difficult. To me, print is part of the vibrant creative and communications sector and touches pretty much on all aspects of our daily life. We may be consumed by our digital devices and social media, but we could not imagine a day without print in all its amazing applications.

When it comes to identifying new industry talent, our own flagship Print Futures Awards have shown there is an incredible depth and breadth of new people trying to join the sector or already progressing within it. If this year’s entries and winners are anything to go by, it’s clear that the sector is attracting talented young people. We had a record number of applications and our industry judges were blown away by the people they interviewed.

It would be great to get the sector more involved in raising awareness of the opportunities within it for young people, whether they are leaving school, college or university and want to follow an apprenticeship, general training programme or a specific function, such as marketing or operations.

We know print works and so it has a future, even if we do not necessarily know what shape it will take. The sector has always innovated and adapted and I cannot think of a better place to be if you want a career that keeps you learning and inspired.


How can the industry and young people help each other?

choudryAsif Choudry, sales and marketing director, Resource

“A lot of companies in the industry traditionally tend to look for people with established print knowledge, which only goes so far. The whole industry needs to get past the inky printer kind of stereotype – it’s our job to make the sector attractive. It needs to showcase itself as a creative industry, because it is one but the creative part of the industry is usually born out of the designers that we print for so graduates and younger people will go to the design agency before they would go to the printer.”

singhGurdev Singh, managing director, Northwolds

“When I bought the company in 2014 we had quite an ageing workforce. It’s really great to have experience and loyalty, and you don’t want to lose that, but equally it’s a time bomb because you’re going to get a few people leaving. We used the BPIF to take on two apprentices, who are doing great and get a lot of support, guidance and mentoring from the BPIF. We get some really good ideas from young people – when they’ve seen how things are done; they’re more open to change and suggesting different methods of working.”

dochertyStephen Docherty, managing director, Bell & Bain

“You could take an apprenticeship in print and after completing that I think you could get a job for any company in any country in the world. There are certain disciplines and timescales to work with in print, you have to manage situations and expectations and you interact with all walks of life. We try to grow our own – you can apply a successful structure and channel the energy that you have into young people and they will hopefully grow up with the same ethos and you’ve then got a whole company all thinking the same way.”


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