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

Class Is in Session

The core competencies allowed us to design a curriculum that encompasses all these skills and allows us to teach them in a hierarchy of increasing difficulty. It is critical to build on previous content and review more complex skills multiple times. Here is the 12-week structure:

  • Week 1: Intro & Webbing the Press
  • Week 2: Die Cutting
  • Week 3: Plate Mounting & Kiss Impressions
  • Week 4: 2- & 3-Color Jobs
  • Week 5: 3- & 4-Color Jobs
  • Week 6: 4-Color Process
  • Week 7: Turnbar & Top Cut/Undercut Dies
  • Week 8: Delam/Relam
  • Week 9: Turret/Butt Splicer
  • Week 10: 6-Color Jobs & Varnish
  • Week 11: Final
  • Week 12: Cold Foil & Embossing

As you can see, it accelerates at a rapid pace, considering many of the students have never operated a flexo press before. If you look closely, the content builds on itself. For instance, if you do not have a good understanding of tension, delam/relam is going to be difficult to complete.

Competency model for advanced manufacturing: Flexographic technician
Data courtesy of Flexo Tech

The training is broken down into two sections: lecture and pressroom. The lecture portion of the class starts with a quiz, evaluating the student’s comprehension of the previous concepts. We then move onto a math problem that includes calculating total feet to run, run time and even material cost. We progress to the day’s lecture on technical content. We dive deep into the technical aspects, allowing the students to understand the whys and the hows of the pressroom. When we are troubleshooting in the pressroom, I will often refer back to these concepts. We make sure the content aligns with industry best practices and assure the students are being taught the correct way to execute tasks. The students also go through Level I of FTA’s FIRST (Flexographic Image Reproduction Specifications & Tolerances) Individual Certification program to broaden their skills and understanding of best practices.

In the pressroom, it is imperative training mirrors real-life scenarios. As I mentioned, the students set up jobs based on job tickets and proof just as they would in the real world. After the press is set up, the students request a sign-off. (We typically use our generic paperwork but have used company-specific forms before.) The students are required to verify the bar code will scan, get a color verification, ensure the dimensions are correct (+/- 0.03125-in.) along with many other print specifics from unwind direction to print quality.

A student converting counts to footage for completion of paperwork.
Photo courtesy of Flexo Tech

Evaluation of the student’s comprehension is imperative. Beside the frequent quizzes in the lecture portion of the class, there are also press checkpoints. These are hands-on evaluations of important press-related skills measured with metrics. For instance, the students need to be able to install a die and get it cutting and stripping in less than five minutes, or set a kiss impression in fewer than 60-ft., or register four colors accurately in 100-ft. of material. These checkpoints can be reattempted by the students up to their due dates, encouraging them to practice and improve their grade.

There are two final exams. One is a 160-question written final that includes questions like: “Your cyan density is printing at a 1.18 and you are aiming for FIRST densities. If your density is out of tolerance, please explain how you would troubleshoot this problem by identifying components or settings and how you adjust/change them.” There is also a press final consisting of a tight register, 6-color job with a flood varnish, die cut and lineals. To earn maximum points, the student needs to properly set up, run and clean up the job in three and a half hours, and use less than 900-ft. of material.

This is an intense training program that encourages students to perform at a high level with a focus on productivity, but more importantly, doing things right and printing quality product.

Engaging Today’s Youth

To address the current labor shortage, we as an industry need to come up with unique solutions. Crazy as it sounds, working with your competitors to start a training program might just help keep the industry alive—It has worked well for many flexo printers in Minneapolis. One area printer employs 46 press operators and 10 of them are Flexo Tech graduates. This has allowed the printer to sustain double-digit growth every year for the last five, and install a pair of new, 10-color presses in that same timeframe.

I get calls every day from companies looking to hire students or in need of an operator. With this type of demand, one would think our program would have a waitlist a mile long. The truth is, we struggle to fill classes. Companies tell me they can’t find the time to send an individual, or they can’t find a student they think is a good fit.

I don’t understand how they intend on solving their press crew issues if this is their stance on development. It blows my mind when I count the number of individuals who are concerned about the epic press crew crisis we’re seeing, but who then take little to no action to solve it. We all need to step up and participate.

We as an industry need to increase our participation in addressing the labor shortage.
Photo courtesy of Flexo Tech

One of the best ways to do that is to work with local high schools, participate in career days or support your local print program. Many people do not even know our industry exists. To engage the youth of today, we need to let them know about the great career opportunities within the flexo industry. We are not the only industry facing this shortage, but we are one of the only ones that is doing little to combat it. In contrast, the nursing industry has invested in what’s referred to as a Scrubs camp. “Since 2008, the ultimate goal of Scrubs Camp has been to get students excited and interested in pursuing a career in the health sciences, and to go back home motivated and focused about what they can do in middle and high school to prepare for that potential career,” is how HealthForce Minnesota describes the project. The construction industry in Minnesota has created Project Build and is asking congress for $1 million to promote careers in construction. These industries that are actively promoting themselves and the careers that are available are going to attract more future employees than the flexographic industry, one that is unknown to most.

To get the word out, the Twin Cities Flexo Association (TCFA), along with local printers Anagram International, AWT Labels & Packaging, Computype and Meyers; created the Future of Flexo videos. These videos were produced for the entire industry to use, on social media, at career events or for middle and high school tours.

If the flexo community continues to show little or no interest in combating the labor shortage, it will continue to struggle. I encourage you to step up and take some sort of action to promote or support the industry.

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.