The Labor Shortage: Part 3 in a Series on Workers in the Print Industry

[Editor’s Note: This three-part series takes an in-depth look at the worker shortage facing the print industry. Part 1, in May’s FLEXO Magazine, covered the many statistics and facts that illustrate why there is a labor shortage and what we can expect in the future. Part 2, in July’s FLEXO, looked at various ways of solving your immediate employment needs. This final installment examines various training options available and what it takes to create your own on-the-job training program.]

I think we can all agree it is difficult to find a trained press operator today. Many companies are finding their only recourse in these dire times is to steal an operator from a competitor by offering a higher wage or better benefits.

This practice of poaching is not sustainable for the industry as a whole and has potential ethical issues. Today, training is treated as an expense, and not as a long-term investment. Many companies have a fear of investing in training and then losing their valuable employee to a competitor. Thin margins often make a long-term investment in creating their own workforce talent pool difficult for many employers.

Mandatory overtime, hiring from competitors—these are reactive, not proactive. Formal apprenticeships in the US are down 40 percent since 2003. Less than 1 percent of the US manufacturing workforce is in an apprenticeship-type model, where Germany (a country not facing a labor shortage) has more than 17 percent of its workforce in such a model, lending itself to a more sustainable manufacturing future.

US Apprentice Programs and Participants

Data courtesy of The Wall Street Journal/US Department of Labor

The industry as a whole needs to look at a more sustainable process for developing new talent. We need to be prepared to recruit and train our own operators to allow for succession and growth, as trade schools around the US close print programs. In this article—the finale of my three-part series examining the workforce shortage—I will review what it takes to create a good on-the-job (OTJ) training program and a unique solution to the press crew crises that Minneapolis flexo printers developed.

US Apprentice Programs and Participants

Data courtesy of The Wall Street Journal/US Department of Labor

OTJ Training

Plenty of printers train with some sort of OTJ model. I have seen a few that are outstanding—they truly prepare students for a future in print. I have also seen other programs that are so bad, they lend themselves to more employee turnover—they nearly encourage it.

Most OTJ programs I see have serious opportunities for improvement. So, what makes a good training program? It all starts with the trainer. All too often in OTJ situations, the most productive press operator is selected to be the trainer, regardless of personality or training ability. A good trainer is going to be patient, upbeat and motivate students—more of a mentor than a teacher. The most productive operator in the shop might be more concerned about maintaining his/her numbers (as that’s what will show up in his/her performance evaluation) and less concerned with the newbie to train. I have also seen experienced operators reluctant to share their knowledge, as they fear passing it on will make them less valuable and lead to their imminent demise.

Many OTJ programs coincide with production. This can have its benefits, but all too often the ship date of the work is the focus, causing the operator to take over and say to the student, “We need to get this job out today—How about you stand over there and let me take over?” In a production-driven environment, there is no real structure. The content is based on the mix of work that happens to be on the press that week. For instance, there may not be a job that uses the turnbar during training, resulting in students never learning this critical skill.

One of the many Flexo Tech graduating classes
Photo courtesy of Flexo Tech

The purpose of training is to teach students the correct way to operate a press. Unfortunately, many veteran press operators have themselves received little formal training. By no fault of their own, they do what they need to do to get the job off the press, whether it is right or wrong. Passing on knowledge is vital; passing on these (sometimes bad) habits, less so. For instance, the student may be taught to use a 600 cpi anilox roll, but isn’t taught anything about the importance of the volume (bcm), because the veteran operator doesn’t understand its importance.

Structuring training with core competencies dramatically improves the outcome. A core competency is a group of skills or attributes the student needs to learn to be proficient at the job. Each core competency has corresponding content or skills that support it. For instance, a core competency could be plate mounting. The skills that support this core competence would include unwind direction, mounting tape selection, proper plate cleaning and storage techniques, to name a few. Core competencies assure all the critical content is covered. They also allow you to structure the training in a hierarchy of increasing complexity, thus allowing more complex content to be covered multiple times and to build on those core skills.

Good training is more than just showing someone how to do something—They need to understand the content. One of the most important components of a good training program is evaluation of skills. Simply asking “Do you understand?” is not a good way to evaluate comprehension.

A student may be embarrassed to admit to not understanding something, may fear looking dumb or—if there is a language barrier—may feel uncomfortable acknowledging it exists. There needs to be some sort of evaluation, and it can be as simple as having each student demonstrate a skill, or as complex as a written exam. Evaluation demonstrates a student has learned the content and is ready to progress forward. Evaluation is also a good tool to determine if your training is effective. If you discover no one is absorbing what you are teaching, perhaps you need to look at how you are training.

A Training Resource

Creating a good OTJ program takes time and resources, but it is well worth the investment. In Minneapolis, the closure of the flexo print program at the local technical school left many of the area’s printers with no good source for new press operators. Two companies (AWT Labels & Packaging and Computype) banded together to create Flexographic Tech, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit flexo training resource whose mission is to provide hands-on training in a compressed timeframe to produce qualified, productive flexographic press operators.

Since opening the doors in 2015, Flexo Tech has trained almost 60 operators from around North America and more than 100 professionals in its three-day Flexo 101 intro to the industry class. Flexo Tech’s facility includes a 400 sq. ft. classroom and a 1,400 sq. ft. pressroom equipped with a Mark Andy 2200 (8-color) press, plate mounter and ink lab. The premise behind the creation of Flexo Tech was to make a training resource for the entire flexo industry to utilize. Students are enrolled by companies in the flexographic industry and trained by Flexo Tech’s instructors.

A Flexo Tech student determining registration of deadener on print sample to proof. This is where the learning happens.
Photo courtesy of Flexo Tech

When we started the training program, there was some uncertainty about its intentions. Flexo Tech is housed under the same roof as AWT, as it provides floor space and a press for training. Some companies were concerned their most valuable resources—new press operators—would be stolen away by a competing printer. To allay this fear, AWT signs non-solicitation/NDAs with all of the companies who have staff trained at Flexo Tech. In the last four years, we have not had a single issue with employees trained at Flexo Tech being poaching by anyone.

The intense 12-week press operator training program follows the many principles for a good OTJ program that I’ve laid out in this article. To keep the training effective, we have small class sizes of just four students. We do not run any live work, as the training is our focus. We model all of our training after real-life scenarios as the students set up jobs according to job tickets. I purposely place errors in the job tickets to make sure the students are reading and understanding them.

Each pressrun is deconstructed after sign-off, but before the student runs it, with an eight-page grading rubric looking at everything from tension settings, anilox roll selection, doctor blade settings, and even waste and time metrics. When the students are on press, I do not touch anything, unless one requests hands-on assistance. This allows them to immerse themselves in what they are doing, and it promotes comprehension and troubleshooting in the long run.

When we started the training program, we worked with 10 local flexo printers to identify the skills press operators should have. These skills became the core competencies that are the backbone of our training program. They are identified in Figure 2 on next page.