From the Editor: Investing in Students of Printing

Struggling to find good employees? It's going to take more than just a 'help wanted' ad.

I’ll bet that finding skilled production staff is a constant headache for your business. You’re not alone, and unfortunately, things aren’t likely to improve soon. Over the past few years, a number of colleges that offer coursework and degrees in printing – schools that have traditionally provided solid candidates for these positions – have cut back or discontinued their print-related curriculum.

Johnny Shell, VP of technical services for SGIA, believes the trend could exacerbate the labor shortage in our industry. “This is going to be a problem unless we address it. The common quote we hear is, ‘I can’t find good, trained employees.’ Well, that’s about to get a lot tougher.”

But there are hopeful signs that print is still connecting with students, and not just at the collegiate level. Shell has noticed an increasing number of high schools around the country opening graphic-communications programs or reinventing them to focus on new technology and applications that today’s youth find compelling.

One such school is C.S. Monroe Technology Center in Leesburg, Virginia. Instructor Pam Smith recalls showing students and their parents the school’s printing facility during open houses, but the ink-stained offset presses and other tools of the general commercial printing trade held little appeal. While she still teaches those fundamentals, the program now appeals to this tech-savvy generation of students with a wide-format inkjet printer, a sublimation printer, screen-printing equipment, and direct-to-garment capabilities. Instead of cranking out flyers for the next school event, kids now use the latest design tools to create shirts and other products that interest them. Enrollment in the program is climbing.

Such better equipped and more finely tuned programs are yielding fruit. Shell reports that entries in the annual ASDPT Tom Frecska Student Printing Competition (named in memory of the former Screen Printing editor-in-chief) more than doubled in 2016. Judges Denise Breard and Scott Fresener, both members of the Academy of Screen and Digital Printing Technologies, said that this year’s entries were of such high quality that they couldn’t be distinguished from professionally made prints.

Further evidence comes from SkillsUSA, an organization that helps educators and students prepare for technical occupations. Last June in Louisville, Kentucky, SkillsUSA held its 52nd annual National Leadership and Skills Championship. The event includes several elite printing competitions, with just one student participating from each state where entries were submitted. Shell chairs two of the contests – screen printing and sublimation – and reports that entries in both were up significantly this year. And for the first time, he says, screen printing drew more participants than the graphic communications (offset) competition. Is this a sign that workers we hope to hire tomorrow see what we do for a living as cool? Definitely, but it wouldn’t have happened without the work of SGIA Associate Manager of Education Erin Nuss in encouraging schools to enter, the dedication of five expert judges from the field, and the support of industry vendors that donated more than $60,000 in prizes.

This brings us back to you. The common thread linking these success stories is support from the industry, and you can do a lot more for the effort than place help-wanted ads. Your time, resources, and direction will benefit these schools tremendously as they strive to supply our field with a steady stream of qualified workers. Get involved.

Read more from the editor or explore the rest of our October/November 2016 issue.

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