All industries need to maintain a steady flow of new entrants, progressing through training to more skilled positions. But it can be hard to ensure, and particularly so when the ability to attract top-quality trainees is stymied by an unfair negative portrayal of said industry.
And while we know print is still a very healthy business it is undoubtedly greying, so how are companies and bodies standing up to the challenges posed by the requirement for good training?
PrintWeek reported at the beginning of this year on wide-format body Fespa’s training survey, looking to plug perceived training and skills gaps in the wide-format sector.
“You have to differentiate between training and qualifications and people often confuse the two,” says the survey’s author and Fespa UK associate director Peter Kiddell.
“Training is very definitely operations-focused. There are certain elements included in the qualifications that are extremely good, such as communication issues and health and safety, but when it comes to specific training for particular aspects of the industry that is where we are struggling.”
For Kiddell, wide-format is lacking a framework to help companies put the hours in, and the bodies are not dedicating enough time to the training cause.
On the commercial print side, BPIF programme director Ursula Daly is more positive about the Fed’s rolling programme that has around 500 trainees at any given time.
Daly says: “The print industry has always been good around training and apprenticeships. If you go around the industry people will talk about apprenticeships they did when they first came in. You have a lot of serious people who actually started out as apprentices.”
The BPIF sets high training standards for the industry. It offers a whole range of apprenticeships, across disciplines including pre-press, print, digital and finishing, along with a number of business training programmes, some of which go all the way up to NVQ Level 5 (which pre-qualifies candidates for a masters).
Apprenticeships tend to contain two elements, a vocational VRQ and a theoretical NVQ, and Daly explains that while historically the BPIF was fully focused on trade apprenticeships, the changing nature of the industry means management skills are increasingly being taught.
Paper merchant Antalis offers up a similar training service focused entirely on digital and with a heavy emphasis on developing technologies; more than 50% of its workshop topics are in colour management and RIP software.
Antalis digital support manager Giles Bristow joined the company in 2010 and helped set up the Antalis Digital Academy after he began training his colleagues in digital printing developments. Now, more than 350 trainees are attending 70 Digital Academy workshops a year.
“There are multiple training providers, but many are limited to providing training on the specific brands they supply. At Antalis, we don’t have these restrictions,” says Bristow.
On the surface it appears that Fespa UK could take a leaf out of the BPIF and Antalis’ book, in recruiting and retaining trainees, but the job is admittedly a difficult one when budgets are slim.
Fespa UK is, however, making positive changes, organising site visits for trainees and spreading the word of wide-format, a growing sector that requires training provision to keep up with growth.
“We’ve got to talk together, that’s how we are doing it at Fespa UK, we have people who are hard-nosed competitors willing to work together on creating the resources and making resources available to train people,” adds Kiddell.
The European Flexographic Industry Association (EFIA) has long been held in high esteem for the training it provides in this particular niche of the industry.
EFIA consultant director Debbie Waldron-Hoines upgraded and revamped its training modules at the back end of last year to form an EFIA academy, providing what she believes to be the only formal flexo training in the UK.
14 online modules, ranging from ink to management to sales, can be completed in the trainees’ spare time – and to date 200 individuals have completed modules. Waldron-Hoines is working with certain EFIA partners to provide hands-on training to complement the online modules.
“Companies don’t have the time or resources to spend on people in training,” she says.
“There is an appetite out there to train but companies do not have the staff to replace trainees while they go away so this online training is good in the way people can work. We’re fairly advanced in doing that.”
But there is a further dark cloud on the horizon. The Apprenticeship Levy, the subject of so much chatter of late, is soon to come into force. The Levy is part of a government drive to establish three million more apprenticeships by 2020, by taking 0.5% of the wage bill from firms that pay out more than £3m and redistributing this money to all companies in the form of a £15,000 Levy allowance.
The issue, according to Levy experts like Daly, is that the red tape that accompanies the Levy will lead to companies large and small shying away from accepting trainees in the first place.
“My diary is filling up with people wanting me to come and see them and tell them about the Levy,” says Daly.
“From the point of view of SMEs there is a general concern that the people who have traditionally been very supportive of apprenticeships will think this is all too much like hard work while the bigger companies will likely cut their training budgets.”
So while quality training structures in certain sectors remain in place, an industry that is teetering on the knife edge of good training provision could do without any unnecessary distractions.
Print suffers from dumbing down and a lack of appeal
Mike Gilligan, director, Mercury Search & Selection
The issue of training is a wide-ranging one and certainly something that is of paramount importance to ensure the continuation of adequate skills within the industry.
The print production population is an ageing workforce and it is certainly a concern that, as skilled individuals leave the sector, there is not the depth of knowledge within the newer generation to replace that expertise.
As the print process has become more automated there has been a tendency to move away from the traditional ‘time-served’ apprenticeships and many companies have adopted more of a ‘learning on the job’ approach; often lacking a theoretical element. This is compounded by reliance on technology leading to a decrease in skill levels, as many of the new breed of production operatives know how to push a button but are weak on why that button needs to be pushed, and are less able to solve technical problems.
This dumbing down of production has also led to a decrease in expected salary levels. Going back 15 years, the role of a skilled machine-minder would be prestigious and one of the best-paid roles within a print company. As skill requirements have lowered, so too have the salary levels of these roles.
This is coupled with another major issue: that printing is not necessarily seen as an attractive career proposition by many of the younger generation and little is being done to promote the virtues of print as an occupation within schools and colleges. With a lack of vocational training at a younger age the vast majority of school leavers are simply unaware of the industry as a platform to build a lasting and highly skilled career.
Any and all attempts to increase skill levels and promote print as an attractive career choice are welcome news and can only lead to a stronger collective workforce and a more robust industry as a whole.
How do you rate the industry’s training provision?
Leslie Gibson, managing director, Frip Finishing
“I think fundamentally the changes that have taken place in the economy and in our industry have meant that many firms haven’t been training staff; what they’ve been doing is just trying to acquire staff with skills from competitors or from businesses that have failed. The reality is our industry is a sector that is highly skilled and therefore we’ve got to put that skill back into the business before we lose it. After the aeronautical industry, the print and communications industry is the second largest contributor to GDP in the UK, and we need to recognise that.”
Christine Steele, strategic development director, UK Book Binders
“Training and recruitment in print finishing is one of the toughest areas. Gone are the days when they used to do a City & Guilds in bookbinding. There may be apprenticeships for printers running the presses but actually just turning the printed matter into a finished product is extremely difficult. With printing, the technology for the presses is becoming fantastic, how they are automated and the technology and the understanding that you need for programming the machines, the marketplace is excelling, whereas finishing will always be manual.”
Bill Smyth, managing director, Laser Graphics
“It’s difficult because everything in print is different, and in the digital field if you’re using Indigos you need specific training for Indigos, while I should imagine with other machines the training must be similar across different brands. I think the more difficult bit for new people to understand is RGB and CMYK and bleeds – the usual things that everyone needs to learn from the beginning. University kids come out as designers but they often don’t have the basics of printing and that’s probably because lecturers haven’t been in the industry in that depth.”