Can print blaze a trail to close the succession gap?

Simon Creasey
Monday, October 21, 2019

The old-fashioned printer is something of an endangered species. Following the financial crisis hundreds of skilled print jobs were lost in the industry as companies consolidated or fell by the wayside.

In the process decades’ worth of knowledge disappeared forever. The situation was further exacerbated by manufacturers introducing greater levels of automation to their machinery, which has led to a situation where nowadays what were once called ‘printers’ are more commonly and accurately referred to as ‘machine operators’.

On top of the continuous flurry of job losses the print industry is also struggling to attract enough young blood to operate machines these days. As a result, while most factories have their fair share of 40-plus-year-olds it’s a struggle to find young people entering the industry and moving up through the ranks to pick up the slack as the next generation retires.

While the situation sounds pretty bleak there is a potential glimmer of hope. In May this year, the Print Trailblazer Level 3 apprenticeship scheme won full government approval. The scheme is anticipated to start taking its first intake of apprentices in the new academic year and many people are pinning their hopes on the Trailblazer helping to shore up the talent gap that exists in the industry.

But how will it pan out and what does the current landscape for apprenticeships in the printing industry look like?

The BPIF worked with a consortium of industry figures including James Buffoni, managing director of Ryedale Group, Ian Wilton, operations director of CDS, and representatives from BCQ Group, De La Rue, Reach, the Printing Charity, Unite the Union and many more to develop the Trailblazer scheme. The aim of the scheme is to provide a new framework and standard to train Level 3 apprentices. 

For Ursula Daly, programme director at the BPIF, who helped to deliver the Trailblazer, one of the key things is the standard is now a “succinct” document covering just five pages, whereas previous National Occupation Standards were in excess of 100 pages. The language used is also less technical than it has been in the past.

“What this means is that young people and their parents, who are important in the decision making process, can now access this standard, read it and understand what the job entails,” says Daly. “In addition with the new grading introduced by trailblazers, there is an opportunity for an apprentice to excel rather than just pass.”

Daly adds that the BPIF, which she says took some time to plan the learning to support apprentices and employers through this new standard, started enrolling new students onto the programme at the start of the current academic year and is seeing “keen interest” from employers.

“They know that this is the most up-to-date standard and with the introduction of behaviours into the new standard there is an additional dimension to the learning that the apprentice will undertake and the employer will end up with a more rounded individual,” explains Daly.

One print industry boss who is delighted the Trailblazer received government approval is Ryedale’s Buffoni. He admits that the process took longer than initially anticipated, but despite the time-consuming nature of the approval process he says the new standard is absolutely necessary for the good of the industry.

“This is because Level 3 forms a really important rung on the career ladder,” says Buffoni. “It gives people perhaps their first opportunity to take on new responsibilities in the form of supervisory and team leader roles with confidence, both to better themselves and the companies that they work for.” He adds the he has personally met numerous industry leaders who benefited from apprenticeships in the early days and his big hope is that this standard could help to launch the future leaders of the industry. “Personally, that’s the main reason why I got involved and I met some more great industry fellows along the way,” says Buffoni.

Another print boss who sees the new Level 3 Trailblazer as a step in the right direction is Darren Coxon, managing director of Pensord. “The employer defines the value of what is being taught, learned and measured and so each interested party – the learner, the employer and the industry – benefits from the improved knowledge, skills and behaviours it needs to grow and evolve. That has got to be good for our industry and the economy as a whole.”

While the scheme has been widely welcomed by those who played a hand in helping to create it, it’s unlikely to address the shortfall of young blood entering the industry across the whole of the UK. North of the border Garry Richmond, director of Print Scotland, prints a bleak picture about the country’s looming succession gap issue. He says the issue is going to really hit home around 2030 when about 60% of the print work force is set to retire.

“Unite estimates there are about 5,500 card carrying print workers in Scotland and there must be an unquantifiable number who are not card carriers, so there is a fairly sizeable workforce in Scotland that is related to the print industry, but there can’t be more than around 30 apprentices in all of Scotland for print,” explains Richmond. “That’s not to say that some companies have decided to abandon the traditional apprenticeships route. They may well be training people in house, but in terms of the traditional method of apprenticeships we have about 30 per annum and it’s not enough to sustain the industry. We have to get far more through.”

Richmond believes that the current apprenticeship units available to employers are relevant and fit for purpose and doesn’t see the need to create a similar Trailblazing scheme for Scotland. The major issue he identifies, which is something that Print Scotland is desperately trying to address through social media and school visits, is raising the profile of the printing industry amongst teenagers.

“Young people who are at employment age these days are not sitting around thinking I aspire to work in the print industry,” says Richmond. “They probably want to be a video blogger or an app developer or something like that.”

It’s an issue that Amanda Creedon Bass, managing director at Solway Print is all too familiar with. She says that she had never received an application from a young person who wanted to become a printer until last year when she received a message from a local youngster from out of the blue asking if any print jobs were available.

“It hadn’t crossed our mind to take on an apprentice until he wrote to us,” recalls Creedon Bass. “I said to the other directors of the business ‘when our letterpress operator retires we don’t have anyone else to fill his boots. So what we need to do is take on an apprentice printer, but not just a litho printer. We also need someone we can teach letterpress and embossing as well because we do a lot of that sort of work’.”

She says that the company contacted Print Scotland who put the youngster on a Scottish apprenticeship scheme. The move has paid off handsomely for Solway Print as the young apprentice is receiving training and mentoring as part of the scheme, although the company is having to cover the full cost of his wages, which Creedon Bass and Richmond believes could be a major hurdle for many printing companies.

“A lot of businesses in the printing industry are only a couple of sales between profit and loss these days, so I feel they are reticent to take on apprentices because even though it’s a small wage cost it’s still a wage cost, which could make a big difference in some months and some years,” says Richmond. “The biggest thing the government could do is make a contribution towards apprenticeship wages,” he adds.

It’s a view shared by Creedon Bass who says: “The print industry is quite volatile and printers are folding all the time just because of the nature of the game and the advent of the internet and online printing. I follow government guidelines on pay rates and I try and enhance it as best I can, but if I could enhance it a bit more for the guy and offer a bit more training that would be great.”

Print industry members north of the border will no doubt be watching how the Trailblazers scheme shapes up over the coming years to see if it’s something worth replicating in Scotland. The next stage for the BPIF and the industry consortium that has pushed the Level 3 standard forward is to establish a Level 2 standard, as there seems to be widespread recognition that apprenticeships are still at the backbone of education within the printing industry.

“Whilst the types of apprenticeships being undertaken has diversified, this type of training still underpins our industry,” says the BPIF’s Daly. “Attracting new blood into a lot of industries is tough, but the facts are that in the last academic year we had 652 apprentices across England and 52% were under 25. So we are attracting new blood, we just want to attract more. There are 4 million students across 4,000 secondary schools in the UK and we would encourage employers to engage with their local schools.”

It’s an important message Daly espouses because putting a system in place to train the next generation of printers is all well and good, but if the industry can’t compete with other sectors and attract young talent, it will have been a waste of time. 

“The industry is flooded with graphic designers from the age of 17-18 onwards, but on the other side of the door in the print shop I don’t think there is much there,” says Creedon Bass. “There is definitely a gap. I’ve got guys [in the print shop] who are in their 60s and their 40s and then there is Aaron the apprentice and nothing in between.”

The industry needs to fill that gap if it’s to secure a prosperous future. 

© MA Business Limited 2019. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .