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FTA Forum explores flexo press operator 'crisis'

By Greg Hrinya, Associate Editor | May 11, 2017

Even though flexography is the dominant print process for labels, the availability of qualified operators is dwindling.

As part of the Flexographic Technical Association’s Annual Forum, Shawn Oetjen, Flexo Tech, and P.J. Fronczkiewicz, Flint Group, served as chairs for an in-depth look at a critical aspect of modern flexography: press operation. Even though flexography is the dominant printing process for PS labels, the availability of qualified operators is dwindling.

Oetjen, along with presenters Brendan Kinzie and James Stone of GoGetter and VinEquities, as well as Elsie Genova, explored this topic in a presentation entitled, “The ‘Press Crew’ Crisis: Now Who’s Going to Run My Press?”

“It seems like there are less people out there who are available,” said Oetjen. “We want to discuss the serious nature of this problem, but we also want to create a path to recruit, train and retain your skilled employees.”

According to Kinzie, there are a number of factors coming into play. By 2022, more than 25% of US workers will be 55 years or older, up 14% from 2002. Additionally, 10% of the workforce is beginning to retire annually, while 40% of businesses will lose 20% of their workforces in the next five years. He also said that the tipping point will not come until 2020.

“What’s keeping CEO’s up at night? In a survey of 1,409 chief executives around the world, the top business concern among respondents is the availability of skilled labor,” explained Kinzie.

Another key problem for business owners is the lack of training. Since 2003, formal apprenticeships are down 40%. In fact, less than 1% of the US manufacturing workforce partakes in apprenticeships. All the panelists agreed that training is often seen as an expense as opposed to a long-term investment.

Print also has an image problem. “When people think of printing, they think of a dying industry,” said Kinzie. “They view print as magazines, and that’s something we’re going to have to deal with.”

How we can improve? 
Thankfully, there are ways to remedy these issues. Kinzie and Stone said that the industry needs better marketing, allowing people to understand the jobs that are out there and the reality of the industry. The flexo industry is healthy and growing, meaning there is a need for press operators to play a role in bringing the labels and packaging to life.

In addition, hiring and training are critical. The industry needs to develop better ways of reaching youth and establishing the opportunities that exist. Businesses also need to be willing to make that long-term investment in training their employees. Presenting livable wages and long-term job security are also appealing factors.
Kinzie and Stone developed GoGetter to provide a resource for skilled labor to find jobs. The industry can take other steps, as well. Businesses can support local schools and trade schools, even getting involved in career day events. Partnering with an apprenticeship program is also a valuable resource.

Elsie Genova developed and implemented a training program that she thinks can help printers. “We thought it was time for us to develop a training program,” explained Genova. “We started with a base of skilled employees. We wanted to reach out into the market and find our next generation of press operators that we could train, and we wanted to hire locally.”

Not only is FIRST a key resource, Genova developed training videos, asking for support from vendors and equipment manufacturers to help with the learning tools. These detailed learning opportunities are engaging and lay out a clear career path. It’s important to provide a standardization in training, and get management to realize the benefit in the process.

“Even though packaging is all around us, very few people realize where it comes from,” said Genova. “We wanted to develop a career path for this market. It’s a continual process because you’re bringing in new people and offering them a career path.”

The following have also been designated as key improvement areas: resume databases, word of mouth referrals, traditional advertising, and the education system, with higher and alternative education.

“I was shocked, because I knew this was a problem, but I didn’t know it was that big a problem,” said Oetjen. “We want to prove that there are careers in flexography for everyone.” 

Building the future of flexo today
The Graphic Communications program at Clemson University has spent the last 10 years training males and females to become experts in the flexographic field. In September, Nilpeter donated a state-of-the-art flexographic press to Clemson’s Communications program–valued at nearly $1 million. The gift was designed to foster the next generation of flexo printers. 

The press, located in Clemson’s Godfrey Hall, is capable of running promotional labels, flexible films and folding cartons. 

Clemson’s Nona Woolbright addressed the changing workflows in the printing industry and how companies can retain the next generation. Woolbright coordinates Clemson’s Phoenix Challenge team. The Phoenix Challenge celebrated its 20th anniversary for high schools and 10th anniversary for colleges this year. The Phoenix Challenge Foundation is designed to promote the growth of flexo printing throughout North America.

During the FTA’s Annual Awards event, the association recognized chairman Bettylyn Krafft for her work with the Phoenix Challenge and helping to promote flexography to the next generation of printers.

Woolbright conducted a study to locate the next generation of printers. With many programs evolving or closing, there is a need for more teachers, who are currently aging out of the workforce. In the study, Woolbright only found one print teacher between the ages of 20-30 and three under the age of 40.

She found that the workforce is changing, as more females are getting involved in the industry. Graphics students aren’t entering programs as often as they used to, and college programs are shifting or realigning their program emphasis altogether. Woolbright did find, however, that 80% of the alumni surveyed still worked in the printing industry.

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