Screen Printer Wanted:
Qualified Candidates Apply
I am writing this column under protest. Not against the magazine, mind you, but against those company owners and managers who keep calling me to ask, "Where do you get your printers?" I probably get five calls like this each month from people who can't find good workers, claiming their local labor pool is too small or provides applicants that are underqualified or have a poor work ethic. Well, here's my secret: When I need good employees, I just use my direct line to God and ask him to send a couple down when he isn't busy. Everyone knows that printers are born of divine intervention. Surely, it would take more than one lifetime to learn all the mystical, magical tricks required to be a good screen printer. These skills must be a birthright given to a select few who are driven by divine winds into print shops near you. Hopefully, most of you have determined that my previous comments are a load of bull hooey. For those who haven't, let me spell it out for you: God don't make printers, you do. And if you don't, God probably can't help. The real secret is training, and the way you support it--either within or outside of your business--is the key to quality employees. Who should be responsible for training? During my time on the staff of the Screenprinting and Graphic Imaging Association Int'l (SGIA), issues of training--dealing with training schools and setting up effective training programs--came up time and time again. We were never able to get a comprehensive training program going on a national level. So we decided to look at what was already out there. We spent a year gathering information on schools that teach some type of printing. We collected articles from the Internet, newspapers, magazines, printing trade journals--anywhere we could get information. We came up with about 290 schools. We sent out questionnaires to these schools, followed up with phone calls, and got information on training programs from about half of the group. We asked questions about the ink types, dryers, exposure units, computers, stencil systems, methods of art generation, substrates, and other issues their programs covered. The results of our survey were as follows: Less than 3% of respondents used anything other than air-dry inks. About 92% dealt exclusively with textile printing. For printing equipment, only 11% used anything other than tables with clamps to hold down screens for manual printing. One training program used a press identified as a "Schultz-O-Matic." I had to call on that one, which turned out to be a homemade manual carousel. Additionally, more than 60% of respondents used hand-cut stencils (ruby or amberlith). About 20% used some type of photostencil system (direct emulsion, indirect emulsion, or capillary film). The rest used anything from lacquer-based films to the old "tusch and glue" stencil-preparation method. Although textiles (including caps) were the primary substrate on which these programs focused, other substrates covered included vinyl films, paper, cardboard, and heat transfers. About 18% of respondents said they were using "dryers." When pushed to explain, however, we discovered that many of these dryers were nothing more than hair dryers or homemade devices that worked on the same principle as a typical screen-printing dryer. Exposure units varied from platemaking systems to 250-watt light bulbs positioned 71/2 in. above the screen to expose stencils in eight minutes. That's what's out there, so deal with it! I'm not bad mouthing schools and the efforts of those poor, beleaguered art and industrial-arts teachers. In fact, I taught in public schools for years. In the early '70s, I taught art and included a unit on screen printing in my curriculum. We did some really neat things in my class and won several awards. Many of my former students now work in the art field, and about half a dozen are screen printers. A few of them have even worked for me at one time or another. My experience as both an educator and a screen-printing manager has taught me that there are some terrifically talented teachers out there who run excellent screen-printing training programs in their schools. If you are lucky enough to have a relationship with one of these schools, consider yourself blessed. For those of you who don't presently have such training programs in your area, what have you done to change the situation? Maybe it's time to get off your duffs and forge relationships with local educators. Not only will you help develop interest in screen printing by supporting their programs, you'll also ensure yourself a larger pool of skilled help for the future. Some shops have taken this approach and fostered good training programs from which they now draw excellent workers. In our company, we learned early about the value of supporting local training programs. In fact, we are presently working with our second school. It started after the first school (a local high school) sent its industrial-arts teacher to our shop for two weeks one summer. He gathered all the information, samples, articles, videos, etc. that he could get his hands on and is now using these materials to expand his screen-printing program. After hearing about the support we gave to the first educator, a second school approached us. Once again, we offered our equipment and services. All we wanted were kids with interest. Canvassing the competition Besides schools and training programs, another favorite employee source for screen shops is to raid the competition. I'm frequently asked if I would rather get new workers who have some experience or completely inexperienced workers who I would have to train myself from the ground up. To be honest, I don't know. It depends on the person and his or her attitude and work ethic. Where the person worked in the past is not nearly as important. We've tried to hire "experienced" screen printers several times. For example, we once received a resume for a supervisor position from an individual that had ten years experience in screen printing. Since experience is hard to come by, we quickly interviewed and hired this guy. On his first day, he explained that we were tensioning screens too tightly, needed to use more squeegee pressure when printing, and should have added a flow agent to our inks to allow us to print faster. He even told one of my best press operators that he was printing too slowly. The supervisor then pointed out that all the press operators at his old company could outprint our pressman. My printer stepped aside and said, "Show me the way." Talk is cheap, and the quality of the supervisor's prints showed just how cheap. He only lasted three weeks before I cut him loose. Whether you consider hiring a person with six years of experience or ten, keep in mind that this often means the individual has one year of experience, six or ten times over. This doesn't mean they can't, or won't, work out for your operation. But make sure they're as qualified as you expect them to be. Be careful not to hire someone else's poor training habits, especially if the candidate has an ego and an attitude that make the habits difficult to correct. The final solution Since I've explained that you may not get much help in producing skilled workers from local schools (unless you help build their training programs) and that you'll probably get mixed results from raiding the competition, what else can you do? As the age-old proverb says, "If you want something done right, do it yourself." In other words, create a strong in-house training system. Assuming that your area is similar to the two areas of the country in which I've lived, you're going to find, if lucky, one in three or four employees that will work out. The rest will prove unsuitable for a variety of reasons. Some will be lazy, others just won't care about developing their printing skills, and a few will believe that you owe them a paycheck regardless of their work. If you're lucky, a handful may prove to be the ones sent by God. If an employee has the desire, a good work ethic, a little bit of dexterity, and can find positioning guides on the press, I'll bet he or she will make a pretty fair printer over time. How long? That depends on your patience, the time you spend training the worker, and the freedom you give the employee to experiment. By freedom, I mean letting employees struggle a bit and find solutions them- selves. Occasionally they'll fail, but they will always learn from these situations. It takes time, patience, and motivation to teach people to print. Once you find a couple of good workers, hang on for dear life. Money is not the only motivator. How workers perceive their bosses, the way they are treated, and the environment they work in have as much to do with people changing jobs as money--and most of the time more. The opinions and recommendations expressed in this monthly column are Mr. Wolff's and not necessarily those of Screen Printing magazine. Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the December 1998 edition of Screen Printing magazine.