FTA Emerging Leaders Committee Member Thomas Koester Talks Experiences as a Young Flexographer, Career Path, Advice for Millennials

Even as a young flexographer, Emerging Leaders Committee member Thomas Koester has a wealth of industry experience under his belt.

A graduate of Clemson University, he received the 2017 FFTA Rossini North America Flexographic Research Scholarship for his research on varying repeat lengths. From there, he joined All Printing Resources Inc (APR), training for six months with the Technical Solutions Group in Glendale Heights, IL, acquiring valuable experience in APR’s Innovations Center. After completing his training, he relocated to Denver, CO to support APR customers in the Western US.

“The support I give to our customers will vary,” explains Koester. “Mainly, the support will have to do with different products that we supply to them, whether it be software like SpotOn! Flexo, our Supply Sentry RFID inventory system, or consumables like doctor blades. I still come back to our Innovation Center to assist in various press runs, research projects and seminars.”

Here, Koester talks more about his education, career path and advice for Millennials in flexography today.

FTA: How did you decide to pursue a career in the flexographic industry?

Koester: The summer after my freshman year at Clemson University, I switched my major to graphic communications with a minor in packaging science. I was in search of an on-campus job and found out the Sonoco Institute of Packaging Design and Graphics was hiring. At the Sonoco Institute, I assisted in press trials and came to really enjoy flexography. The Sonoco Institute really opened my eyes to the flexo industry and helped me make a lot of great connections with industry members. I got to take part in a number of groundbreaking and interesting trials in the pressroom, and they helped me realize how exciting the industry can be. My minor in packaging science helped me understand some of the applications of flexography and the materials that we print on.

FTA: What do you like about this industry?

Koester: I like that this industry is tangible; I really enjoy the hands-on aspect of the work that I do. The engineering side of my brain enjoys all of the different variables that have to be controlled in flexo to produce the best possible printed product. All of these variables have an effect on one another and on the ultimate printed product. I find that fascinating and intriguing.

It is also a very small industry. Through school, internships and my position at APR, I already feel like I know a lot of different people in the industry when I attend events like FTA’s FORUM and INFOFLEX. It almost feels like a small industry family. That being said, I have only been working full time in the industry since February.

FTA: What do you think is the biggest misconception about young people in this industry?

Koester: I find the biggest misconception is that young people only want to stay in one job for a year or two. While I think there is some merit to this generalization because there are young people who jump from job to job, it doesn’t apply to all of us. I think there are many young people entering industries—even outside of flexo—who would be more than willing to stay with a single company as long as they are given opportunities to advance and are kept happy. I think this will become especially true as older generations start to filter out and retire, making more room for the younger generations to advance.

“A good company culture and opportunities for advancement show that a company cares about their employees’ happiness and the environment in which they work.”

FTA: The FTA Generational Study found that Millennials in package printing primarily work at distributors (43 percent) while only 9 percent of workers over 35 work at distributors. Do you think there’s a reason more Millennials are attracted to distributors like APR? What do you like about the company?

Koester: There definitely is a trend of Millennials in package printing primarily working at distributors. I think that most of the Millennials I worked with at the Sonoco Institute work for a distributor of some sort. Distributors may be seen as more on the cutting edge of technology for the industry and pushing boundaries.

There is a misconception among students working in the industry: They think they are going to be stuck in a plant town in the middle of nowhere. I know plenty of younger people who work for a print shop but live in awesome places like Boston, Charlotte, Atlanta, Chicago or Austin. I also know a number of younger people in the industry who do live in a small town or city, but have an awesome backyard like the Ozarks or Yosemite National Park. It is all a matter of perspective and personal preference. For young professionals with spouses and families, a traveling position like my own might not be ideal, and a more structured job might be more suitable.

My decision to work for All Printing Resources came down to a couple of factors. As a member of our Technical Solutions Group, I get a lot of face-to-face time with customers, and I think that is something I can really grow from professionally and personally. Because APR is not the largest company, I get to wear a lot of hats. Not only do I support customers on a technical level, but I am involved in many different product development projects, seminars and research projects. Because APR is not a manufacturer and distributor of a single product, I am exposed to a large variety of different types of equipment, software and consumables we provide to our customers. As an avid outdoorsman, the opportunity to live in the West was icing on the cake! The company culture at APR also struck a chord with me. I really enjoy working for Tim Reece, my supervisor, and for David Nieman, our president and CEO, because both have been incredibly supportive and accessible.

FTA: Much is made of the age gap in the workforce, and the friction between younger and more veteran workers. Is there any truth to that?

Koester: As a new industry member, I have not experienced any real friction between younger and veteran workers. The only friction I have definitely heard is grumbling about how Millennials do not stay put and jump from job to job. Most of the time, I have found veteran workers more than willing to share their experience and knowledge, and excited about new energy being brought back to the industry.

It can be a challenge for me not having the decades of experience in the industry that many veterans do. Lucky for me, my team is made up of veterans who are more than willing to give me support, answer any questions, and share their knowledge.