Call It Education

We all know the nuances and intricacies of the printing industry – but how do we get everyone else in on the secret that print is everywhere?

I’m sitting here conflicted. The Skills Canada national competition is going on around me, with 550 kids from across the country, provincial winners in an array of skilled trade categories, everything from cooking to carpentry, electronics to animation, plumbing to pastry – and nothing to do with print. Any kind of print. 

I’m going to get off my screen printing horse and trade it for a Ford – a “Bowers edition” 2018 version of the print community, that big swirling mass of screen, digital, flexo, 3D, offset, pad, and whatever else is out there. We are gigantic, in Canada, the US, and around the world. So why is there no print at a skilled trades event? 

My homies from the Academy who have gotten involved with Skills USA told me they had nothing going on until a few years ago as well. They had to pitch a mock competition at an event, and, according to James Ortolani, tricked the organizers into checking it out by printing dye sub mugs with each committee person’s image, which they had to come get from the demonstration. After that, it became part of the competition, and now over 25 states compete and send finalists to the national championships in screen printing. I’ve never been to the event in the US; I’m sure it is larger than ours, but how well are the various print trades represented?  

Here we are, this large sector of the economy that actually had the most employees of any industry in North America at the end of the 1990s. And although offset (and screen printing) have shrunk since then, the gains in digital printing have probably more than made up for the loss. Look around you. All those buses and buildings, sports arenas and events, T-shirts and printed garments. All those cell phones and solar cells. More print than ever is on display. Somebody is making it, but somehow the education and awareness around it is not connecting our industry with the bright kids coming up. 

Is print boring? No. Young people flock to it. 

Is it too fringe or expensive to offer in schools? No. I’ve personally been told stories of graphic arts teachers reinvigorating their programs with screen printing and having waiting lists. The school district in Renton, Washington, was so pleased that they bought an automatic press for the class and are saving big money district-wide getting the students to run shirt jobs for clubs and activities. 

Are there no jobs? The most common refrain I hear from owners is their inability to find trained workers. I know from 30-plus years in the printing trenches that we struggled with this problem, and our only solution was to train people ourselves. 

My theories for this lack of representation in the school system and the technical trade organizations that support learning in all the various job classifications are multilayered, and they’re my own. They are not necessarily shared by the magazine, SGIA, or the education system.   

First off, we teach screen printing as art, in the art class. That’s all well and good as an introduction for kids, but most teachers, even the ones with printmaking backgrounds, have little or no knowledge of the wider world of commercial printing and the new technologies involved. To my knowledge, not many in our industry staple mesh on wood frames and then paint on their stencils, yet this is typical of printing in schools. No wonder everyone thinks it’s dead. 

We are also dealing with a systemic problem in the school system – the fine art vs. graphic design/commercial art divide. There is a whole industry where the designer or artist is only one part of a much larger creative production team, but the students never see it. We need to do a better job with the teachers and schools to inform them about the various pathways kids can take, the types of jobs, and the products we create.  

Second, the industry shoots itself in the foot. I get that you don’t want to enable competition, but closing your shop to visitors, closing your mind to new methods and techniques, and treating what you do like a super-secret process does no one any good. For sure, we have some good people who go out of their way to share their knowledge. But if you are an owner who doesn’t make a point of encouraging workers to constantly learn, how the hell will you attract younger people who are looking for a dynamic, growing company that embraces technology and new products and processes? 

Third, SGIA needs to somehow get it across to business, government, and the education system that print is not dead. Print (especially functional print) powers this world, graphic and textile print decorates it, and offset and all the others inform it. I know the mandate is to serve member companies, but the plain truth is the membership of SGIA does not include the majority of specialty printers. SGIA needs to raise the awareness in the general population of all the things we do. We have the ability. Can you imagine every printer taking part in a National Print Day, where they unveil not just to their clients but also to the general public a coordinated advertising campaign that showcases print – from gigantic building wraps to T-shirts, posters, and whatever you happen to make. Show people that a solar cell is printed, that a car contains hundreds of printed components, and that all those appliances are controlled by a printed interface. Because the public doesn’t know this is print.

But when they do know, then maybe we get some new recruits into this business. What do you think?

 

Read more Shop Talk from Andy MacDougall or check out the rest of Screen Printing's June/July 2018 digital edition.

 

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