The workforce is currently comprised of those in the younger generation (who grew up with technology), and older workers (who have adapted to working with technology). This dichotomy is one of the reasons workers from different age groups bring varying experiences, strengths and weaknesses to a job—Especially when it comes to the fast-changing technology of the flexographic industry.
Here, FTA Hall of Fame Member Mark Samworth, product specialist – color at Esko, and Tom Koester, part of the Technical Solutions Group at All Printing Resources Inc (APR) discuss what it’s like to work with different generations, the unique strengths varying age groups bring to problem solving, preconceived notions they have about each other and more.
FLEXO Magazine: When you have a project or task to complete and need to coordinate with a coworker whom you don’t know but who is from another generation, what’s your initial mindset? Do you have any preconceptions about working with people from a different age group?
Mark Samworth: I’m 57 years old and learned prepress when it was all done with film. If I’m going to be totally honest, I do have some preconceived notions about working with people from a younger generation, but they are positive.
To be specific, I expect the younger generation to be better with computers, software and general IT than I am—In fact, I rely on them being better than me. While I am not completely inept (I can edit a file in Photoshop, assemble a page in InDesign and RIP a job through a workflow system), I struggle in cases where there are multiple systems remotely connected, all running different software that has to work together. I often ask members of the younger generation for help. Much to my delight, they have been very willing.
I recall hearing a podcast that this may be the first time in human history where the rate of technical change is so fast that it is outpacing the rate of retraining. The result is the younger generation, in many ways, is more qualified than the generation above it. I think this is largely true in the prepress area.
Tom Koester: Like Mark, I also have preconceptions when working on a project with someone from another generation, and mine are also positive. Any time I’m assigned to a task or project with someone older than me, I usually assume they have more experience, and therefore more knowledge about certain subjects, than I do. This gets me excited because it normally means they can teach me something.
While I think studying print and packaging at school provided a great foundation, I don’t believe it’s equivalent to a decade or decades of experience in the field. I don’t have the same amount of experience running (to pick a few consumables) various doctor blades, mounting tapes and inks on press that a lot of industry veterans do. It’s nice to be able to lean on them a bit for this knowledge.
Mark’s right that there are times where I might know something about a piece of software or emerging technology that somebody older than me doesn’t, though I have found this pretty rare. At the same time, I’m frequently reminded that everything prepress used to be done on film, something I have zero experience with.
FLEXO: Mark, do you think for industry veterans who share that perception, that with it they might feel they don’t need to grasp onto technology in the same way younger workers do? That the experience and knowledge they have is what they have, and it’s on younger generations to bring IT knowledge to the table rather than learn it themselves?
Samworth: I feel that veteran workers like me have a few different strategies for dealing with this dramatic IT shift. If you look around the industry at the veteran workers remaining, it’s a bit of a biased sample. We only see the ones who, in some way, were able to “survive” the technology shift. It seems the survivors fall into two general categories.
In one category, there are some workers who happen to keep up pretty well. They are naturally good at details and they put effort into keeping abreast of technical change.
In another category, there are those who try to keep abreast to some degree but realize that for them, the pure technological approach is not realistic. These “survivors” do tend to lean on the experience and knowledge they have gained over the years. They also tend to rely on the younger workers to bridge their IT gaps. And I tend to fall into that category.
FLEXO: Tom, does recognizing that more experienced workers have that knowledge base cause any intimidation, be it a fear of asking too many questions or a fear of coming off as knowing even less than you might know?
Koester: It can be intimidating that more experienced workers have that much more knowledge than I do, but I always remind myself to step back and recognize the reality of the situation: I have only been working in the industry full time for a couple of months. While I was in grade school, my industry peers were working on press and watching flexography evolve into what it is today. This is a fact of the working world that I have to accept. Because of that, I think it is completely normal that younger workers, like myself, do not know everything about our industry.
As for asking questions, I have found a lot of more experienced workers are open to them no matter how basic or complex. I think they want to see their knowledge passed on to the younger generations and one of the ways to do this is answering questions, no matter how many or how simple. I definitely try to vet my questions beforehand so I’m not extremely annoying or I don’t ask something self-explanatory. There is a big learning curve when entering this industry, and being willing to ask questions is just one of the ways to overcome it.
FLEXO: Mark, how do you feel about the old saying “There are no dumb questions?” Does what Tom’s describing—trying to internally vet his questions first—help young workers figure out some things themselves? Does it put at risk some amount of knowledge not being passed on, if they don’t ask about it and veteran workers don’t think to share it?
Samworth: I do agree with that saying, but again, I think we’re living in an era where there is an equal exchange of questions from old to young (specifically IT-related questions) as there is from young to old (flexography-related questions). I welcome them all because I have a natural yearning to help the next generation, but selfishly, I need to stay connected to the younger generation because I need their support on a regular basis.
Koester: I think Mark is right that younger generations are more and more being asked technological questions as technology continues to advance. That advancement will only continue to accelerate, and I would not be surprised if Millennials are having to ask Generation Z similar questions about emerging technologies in the near future.
While being proficient at the many forms of digital software our industry uses is important, I also believe understanding the basic, mechanical, hands-on aspects of print is equally important. Traveling to facilities across the country, not every printer has all the latest bells and whistles. Many presses are still truly “analog,” with minimal digital interfaces and enhancements. It would be easy for a young industry professional, used to the latest and greatest software and equipment, to walk into a facility that is not updated and feel like a fish out of water. And by the same token, an industry veteran could walk into a completely updated facility and feel the same way.
That’s why it’s still important for veterans to pass down knowledge of why different methods, strategies and techniques are used in the pressroom. Equally, it is important for young industry professionals to keep their older coworkers up to date on technological advancements. Transitioning from a largely older workforce to a younger workforce will take cooperation from all generations.
Samworth: Although the rate of technical change in IT can be daunting, neither age group would want it any other way. Only by utilizing the latest technology to their fullest will flexography reach its full potential. Reaching this potential will be critical, not only for print quality but for sustainability as well. The package of the future needs to not only protect the product and attract the consumer, it must do both in a way which doesn’t ruin the environment in which we live. And on this front, the younger workforce has the greater stake in the outcome.