There is a growing reality that skilled flexo operators will be retiring, leaving the industry with a void on the press. Industry conferences produced by TLMI and the FTA have laid out the concerns. During the FTA’s Annual Forum, Flexo Tech’s Shawn Oetjen described the evolving situation as a “crisis.”
Robin Houston, owner of New Creation Labels and Packaging (NCLPS), has taken a leading role in handling this problem. “I do have concerns about the aging talent in our industry, and I don’t see a whole lot of young people coming up,” she says. “What I did in the spring, I reached out to a lot of groups here locally (in the Atlanta, GA area) because I can’t change what’s going on in the industry, but I can change it for one person. I connected with a group here locally called Communities in Schools that specifically works with kids that are at risk. And you mentor these kids and give them the best possible chance to go to college or get out in the workforce.”
Currently, there is a lack of transparency regarding the opportunities available in the print industry. Converters would benefit from increased vocational training available at the high school level, as well as apprenticeships.
“When I was in high school, there were kids who left school halfway through the day and went to their job where they were learning a skill, a vocation, or they were an apprentice,” explains Houston. “I don’t know if that still exists.”
NCLPS selected a student for a summer internship, which Communities in Schools had never done before. The printer plans to make this an annual occurrence going forward.
“We gave her the opportunity to see what we do in this industry, learn some business etiquette and to get some experience working on the computer,” says Houston. “She was able to work with Label Traxx, building spreadsheets, or working in shipping packaging boxes. It’s given her a vision of what’s possible and what’s out there, as well as some experience to put on her resume.”
In addition, NCLPS is starting a job shadowing program, where the company will bring in high school students for two-to-three hours each month. While there, students will have the opportunity to see what careers are available in this industry.
“If we all did that, maybe we could revitalize the interest in printing for our young people across the country,” remarks Houston. “I’d like to see us giving apprenticeships or helper positions to younger people to expose them to the career opportunities that we have to offer. It’s the lifeblood of our industry. If we don’t actively pursue these younger people, they’re going to do something else. It’s already hard to find a good pressman and that’s only going to get harder and harder if we don’t start addressing the issue.”
According to Brendan Kinzie of GoGetter and VinEquities, more than 25% of US workers will be 55 years or older by 2022. That figure represents a 14% increase from 2002. During the Annual Forum, Kinzie added that a global survey of 1,409 chief executives said that the availability of skilled labor is the top business concern.
“We talk about what’s going on in our industry and what a great career being a press operator could be for someone,” says Houston. “That’s a great career, or working in sales or customer service or purchasing. There are a lot of opportunities in our industry, and people just don’t know about it.”
Flexo Tech, based in Minneapolis, MN, is a non-profit educational resource for students. The organization provides hands-on training to students in an effort to produce the next generation of press operators.
These students get to work on a Mark Andy 2200 8-color, 13” press. According to Flexo Tech, this $200 billion industry has grown at a rate of 2.1% since 2012.
Meanwhile, the Graphic Communications program at Clemson University is renowned for its flexo training of male and female students. Nilpeter even donated a flexo press, valued at nearly $1 million, to help promote growth in the future of the industry.
Flexo Tech’s Oetjen, who is the lead instructor, graduated from the Clemson program, and he also serves on multiple committees designed to create printing awareness. Oetjen, a FIRST Level II press operator, is on the Fox Valley Technical College advisory committee, as well as a board member in the Twin Cities Flexo Association.