The Labor Shortage: Part 2 in a Series on Workers in the Print Industry

[Editor’s Note: This three-part series will take an in-depth look at the worker shortage facing the print industry. Part 1, in May’s issue of FLEXO Magazine, covered the many statistics and facts that illustrate why there is a labor shortage and what we can expect in the future. This second article looks at various ways of solving your immediate employment needs. Part 3 (coming in FLEXO’s September issue) will look at various training options available and what it takes to create your own on-the-job training program. We will also discuss what the industry can do to improve its own visibility.]

In the first article in this series, I looked at the various factors influencing the current labor shortage and, frankly, the gloomy outlook in the years to come. The No. 1 question I get asked is, “Where can we find employees today?”

I think we can all agree that putting an ad in the newspaper is not going to lead to satisfactory results. We need to look at new ways of attracting skilled talent, including where we look and, perhaps more importantly, what we offer to entice new employees.

WEB Flexo Tech Oetjen StarTribune
WEB Flexo Tech Oetjen McDonalds
WEB Flexo Tech Oetjen Cub
The basic economic principle of supply and demand states that when supply is low and demand is high, the price you pay will increase. This is the current employment situation we find ourselves in: Big box retailers, fast food franchises and other businesses are pushing hourly wages higher. If you want to attract good employees, you need to offer outstanding pay and benefits. It’s that easy.
All photos courtesy of Shawn Oetjen

More and more companies are leveraging technology in an attempt to find employees. Today there are so many different ways to post jobs that it can be difficult to get your posting in front of the right candidates. Indeed, LinkedIn and Craigslist (yes Craigslist) are all growing ways to find potential employment candidates. In contrast, Monster.com and CareerBuilder are shrinking in market share.

Many of these digitized recruiting resources use an algorithm to match job seekers with potential employers. However, this does not always work as planned. Your job posting may have key words that incorrectly match candidates who are not even remotely who you are looking for. On the flip side, when a candidate uploads a resume, small details like the margins (on the actual resume) could cause the algorithm to kick the person out of the search pool because it doesn’t align with the search engine’s criteria.

With the use of technology on the rise for job searching, apps are being created for the sole purpose of connecting companies with potential candidates. For instance, GoGetter is an easy-to-use app that connects job seekers and employers, started by a pair of flexo printers (James Stone and Brendan Kinzie) that had a difficult time finding press operators. GoGetter is an online community empowering individuals, business and organizations involved in skilled trades to explore more careers, find talented employees and promote their services.

“While paying employees well may get them in the door, your company culture is what will keep them.”

Because job posting sites don’t always give you the best return on your investment, many companies are opting for temp or staffing agencies, particularly for entry-level positions. Temp agencies play an increasingly important role in filling job postings. Currently, 50 percent of all online manufacturing job postings are offered by staffing/temp agencies. This is a 16 percent increase in manufacturing job postings since 2014. Most of the printers I work with leverage temp agencies, rotate through temps until they find a good one and then hire that individual on full time.

Many companies are having to come up with other unique ways to find candidates to supplement the lackluster results from job postings and temp agencies. Referral programs/word of mouth is still a good way to find new employees—offer $750 if they refer a new employee that remains employed for an extended period of time.

Accessing New Labor Pools

Access to new labor pools is critical with the limited number of traditional job candidates. One section of the population commonly overlooked for employment is non-violent felons. Across the US, felony convictions are up; more than 8 percent of the voting age population are felons. Unfortunately, this group has a negative stigma associated with it and is commonly not even considered for jobs.

Flexo Tech Oetjen Employee Referral Bonus Program
Referrals programs—offering an amount to a referrer if the employee stays at the company for a set amount of time—and word of mouth are useful ways to find new employees.
The truth is, great potential exists, if given a chance. Members of this group are motivated to work hard; they need to maintain a job, or they literally go back to jail. If we offer them a career, it could change their lives. One company I work with almost exclusively hires non-violent felons for entry-level jobs, saying they are some of the best employees it has ever hired. Minnesota recently published the Employer Fair Chance Hiring Toolkit. This guide helps employers access this labor pool and dispels the common misconceptions that are associated with this group.

Military personnel are another great pool of candidates that are in high demand, but have you considered veterans with disabilities? Unfortunately, this is another group that has a stigma of lost limbs or severe disabilities, however this is not normally the case. Their disabilities could be as minor as hearing loss or other less-visible ailments that will not negatively impact their ability to accomplish most job tasks. Some printers are working with battered women’s shelters and even rehab facilities to access new employees.

These new labor pools may come with some unforeseen obstacles. One employer discovered it was unable to fill first shift positions because buses were not running to get employees there on time. It adjusted schedules and, in some cases, provided a stipend for utilizing ride-share apps, and was able to fill all the open positions in less than two weeks. It should be mentioned that some of these candidates may need some remedial training on computers or other soft skills.

If you are interested in accessing this part of the labor pool, I recommend contacting your local Department of Labor and Industry and/or the Department of Employment and Economic Development. See what your state has to offer—You pay for these resources with your tax dollars. Many of these government agencies have free programs to help with the training of computers and other remedial skills.

Attracting New Talent

With so many job openings and a limited number of candidates, we need to entice new employees to work for us over our competition. What do you offer that others don’t? Perhaps you can offer three-day weekends, flexible hours, benefits, 401K, student loan/debt payoff programs or a signing bonus. I recently heard about one company paying employees 50 percent of their wages at the end of each shift and it had a positive impact on attracting new talent. This illustrates why we need to think outside the box when trying to attract new employees. If you want to attract good employees, you need to offer outstanding pay and benefits. It’s that easy.

WEB Flexo Tech Oetjen Supervalu
WEB Flexo Tech Oetjen Burger King
WEB Flexo Tech Oetjen Target
Flexo Tech Oetjen Buc-ees

Let’s talk wages. The basic economic principle of supply and demand states that when supply is low and demand is high, the price you pay will increase. This is the current employment situation we find ourselves in. Furthermore, the cost of living has increased, but wages have stayed virtually stagnant for more than a decade. Many people will argue print careers provide growth opportunity resulting in increased wages over time, which is true. But many entry-level candidates struggle to make ends meet now. Unfortunately the future opportunity will not pay the bills they have now, or put food on the table tonight.

It’s difficult to say what the going rate is because it varies from location to location and job to job. I know if I see Target is paying $12 an hour, I better offer more than that if I want to attract good talent. Where I live, Amazon is paying $16 an hour with 401K and health benefits. The Costco around the corner is paying $19 an hour with health benefits, 401K and paid time off (PTO). The warehouse across the street is offering $21.58 for warehouse order selectors. Bank of America recently announced by the year 2021 it would raise the starting pay for all its employees to $20 an hour.

If you are looking for a job, where would you apply? One of the main factors job seekers are looking at is wage. If you are not offering competitive wages, you will not get good candidates. To be blunt: It blows my mind how many companies have trouble comprehending this. I realize some may scoff at this idea and perhaps say, “It will eat into my bottom line” or “We can find employees.” That may be true, but what is the skill level of those employees and will they leave when they find a better paying job? I would argue that you may pay a little more, but you will get more productive employees, increasing your throughput and thus improving your bottom line.

“I think we can all agree that putting an ad in the newspaper is not going to lead to satisfactory results. We need to look at new ways of attracting skilled talent, including where we look and, perhaps more importantly, what we offer to entice new employees.”

There are numerous studies that unequivocally show paying a few more dollars an hour results in better recruitment and happier, more loyal and more productive employees. These studies show that in the long run, you actually save money because you decrease your employee turnover and increase productivity. We also need to remember a good press helper should be able to think, prioritize tasks, work in a fast-paced environment and sometimes get dirty. This is more demanding than stocking shelves at Target and the pay should illustrate that—if you want high-quality workers, that is.

I do understand increasing wages is a difficult and complex initiative to implement, given that you must also consider your current employees’ compensation. You will more than likely need to raise their wages as well, but perhaps you also give them more responsibility. This is not a simple solution, but it needs to be a part of the conversation.

While paying employees well may get them in the door, your company culture is what will keep them. Do your employees have a voice? Do the employees have an avenue for improvement suggestions that are then executed in a timely fashion? Is the equipment maintained? Is there some flexibility on the schedule if they have doctors’ appointments or issues with their children? Do you offer profit sharing or incentives based on their numbers? These things can make a significant difference and separate you from the competition.

About the Author

headshot Shawn Oetjen

Shawn Oetjen is the instructor at Flexographic Tech. Based in Minneapolis, MN, Flexographic Tech opened its doors in October 2015 as the first cooperative (Co-op), 501(c)(3) nonprofit, flexographic training program in the US. After the local Minneapolis trade school shut the doors on the flexographic printing program, local printers found themselves without a feeder system. AWT Labels and Packaging and Computype started Flexographic Tech to train flexo press operators for any company, even their competitors. They believed this initiative was critical to strengthen the industry.

The mission of Flexographic Tech is to provide hands-on training in a compressed timeframe to produce qualified, productive flexographic press operators for a future in flexographic print. This program acts as a feeder system for the entire flexographic industry.

One of Flexo Tech’s main class offerings is an intense three-month flexo operator training program. The curriculum covers everything from basic press operations to delam relam and cold foil. To date, Flexo Tech has graduated 53 certified, full-time press operators running a wide range of narrow web flexo equipment and even wide web, central impression (CI) flexo presses.

In addition to the press operator training, Flexo Tech offers an intense three-day Flexo 101 class. A comprehensive introduction to the flexographic printing process, Flexo 101 helps industry professionals learn terminology, components involved and have hands-on experience in the printing process.