Industry-wide skills gap has label converters bracing for crisis

By Chelsea McDougallRead later

Label converters continue to cite a gap in the number of press operators entering the industry and the number of those permanently exiting the workforce as a primary pain point. Some come up with creative responses.

In the back room of Minneapolis-based AWT, four students – all in their early-to-mid 20s and conscious of the journalist watching over them and taking their picture – are working a label job. They’re taking turns changing the anilox rolls on a Mark Andy 2200 press under the watchful eye of Shawn Oetjen.

These students are on a newly formed Flexographic Tech course, a hands-on training course for future flexographic press operators. Flexographic Tech, or Flexo Tech as it’s commonly called, is a non-profit endeavor and a unique partnership between AWT and fellow Minnesota label converter Computype. Under Oetjen’s tutelage these students will become fully trained flexographic press operators.

By the time they’re finished with Flexo Tech’s 12-week course, they will have printed a fully functional, 7-color, double die-cut label as if it were a real job for a customer. Some students are so proud of this accomplishment, Oetjen says, they keep the label in their wallet, much like a proud father shows off pictures of his newborn baby. This training program, and others like it, aims to educate future press operators amid what some are calling a workforce crisis in the labels and packaging industry.

By the numbers According to a recent Flexographic Technical Association survey, 40 percent of US flexographic printers surveyed indicated that they had difficulty filling job postings. Fifty-six percent of such employers reported that the talent shortage had a medium to high impact on their ability to meet client needs.

Digital and flexographic press operators are needed across the nation as senior press operators are soon to exit the industry permanently due to retirement. Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 18 percent of the press operator workforce nationwide is at or approaching retirement age, which in the US typically is 62 years old. (In the interest of clarity, it should be noted that the BLS statistics do not define whether press operators are those in label, commercial, wide format, or other disciplines, but rather the BLS uses ‘press operator’ as a blanket term.)

At Computype, the employment outlook was even bleaker. ‘We looked at the demographics of our workforce and found that about 40 percent of our employees are approaching retirement,’ reveals Todd Roach, vice president of innovation at Computype. ‘That could dramatically affect us. Getting trained operators has been difficult for years, if not decades.’

As the labor pool continues to age, many are turning to the millennial generation to fill these roles. The problem is: millennials aren’t looking back. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that only seven percent of the press operator workforce is under 25 years old, indicating a huge gap in young people entering the printing industry.

‘We print packaging,’ Oetjen says. ‘In this industry, it’s hard to reach out to millennials. A lot of kids don’t wake up and say “I want to be a printer”.’

Who can help?

X`TLMI has named workforce recruitment as one of the key elements in its latest strategic plan. The association will offer itself as a resource to label converters in attracting a more qualified workforce. 

In the next three to five years, TLMI plans to identify and quantify its members’ workforce recruitment challenges and will start with a new Wage and Labor Survey in 2017. The association wants to help its members increase their ability to recruit locally, educate job seekers on the industry, and will increase TLMI’s outreach to educational institutions. In other words, TLMI wants to ‘tell the industry’s good story at a local level and show young people looking for a career that we have a lot to offer,’ TLMI’s new chairman Craig Moreland says. 

Moreland, president of Coast Label Company, also discussed the strategy before TLMI member converters at the association’s annual meeting. He said: ‘The tag and label manufacturing industry isn’t what young people think it is. It’s not a dirty, ink-and-grease-under-your-fingernails industry anymore. It’s becoming cleaner and more exciting every day.’

‘Comparing today’s label converting plant to an old-time print shop is not valid, and hasn’t been for a few decades,’ Moreland continued. ‘Clean, air conditioned plants with good lighting and computers everywhere are the new normal, and the work is challenging, important and fulfilling. People stay in our companies and in our industry for good reason.’

The Label Academy founder Mike Fairley (see boxout) echoed that sentiment during a conference session at Labelexpo Americas 2016. He noted that the problem is not exclusive to the US. Label converters worldwide lament the skills gap and image problem.

‘It’s seen as a blue-collar job,’ Fairley said. ‘The image of the industry is a worldwide problem. We are not doing enough to sell our industry. We don’t sell digital or workflow automation. It can be much more glamorous than people think.’

And a career in print can be a fulfilling one. According to data from TLMI’s 2015 Wage and Labor Survey, the salary for flexo press operators varies depending on one’s job duties, region, seniority and sales volumes of the label converter by which they are employed. Average base salary, reported in the TLMI survey, ranged from 17.17 USD an hour up to 22.85 USD an hour for more senior positions.

A supervisor in a flexo press room can make an average median salary of 62,218 USD a year, the survey found.

Creative responses

In Minneapolis, Minnesota, the problem was exacerbated when Dunwoody College of Technology, a two-year vocational school, stopped offering courses for flexographic press operators. As Dunwoody’s flexo instructor, Oetjen moved on to a new job, but two years he later received a call from two local label converters with an idea. AWT and Computype would partner together to form a non-profit training course for future flexographic press operators. With that, Flexographic Tech was born. 

Since starting in October 2015, the program has graduated 15 students. The average age of participants is between 25 and 35 years old.

The students are hired employees of both Computype and AWT, and recently a student from neighboring Flexo Impressions, also went through the training. The students’ employers send them to AWT five days a week for six hours each day. The course is a mixture of classroom work, and practice on the Mark Andy 2200. At the end of the 12-week course, and 160-question final exam, they will have learned the basics of flexographic printing. They learn web handling, die-cutting, quality requirements, color matching and more.

‘If we look at all this [coursework], it’s the basics, but if you do the basics right, it will run smoothly. If you start short cuts that’s where you get into trouble,’ Oetjen says.

Meanwhile, in Central Valley, California, three entrepreneurs quit their jobs at wine label manufacturer G3 to start a venture aimed at closing the skills gap.

Fred Dale, James Stone and Brendan Kinzie created GoGetter, a mobile app designed to connect job seekers in the skilled trades with potential employers. In short, users create a profile and an algorithm created by the trio will match the candidate with an employer, and those parties can start conversing: think dating website, but for job seekers.

‘One of the biggest challenges we always faced was finding and hiring skilled labor,’ says Kinzie, who was a plant manager at G3. ‘We heard the same thing from machinery companies, bottling companies, label companies, you name it. It didn’t matter the position in the skilled trade, there was huge gap.’

The app is free for users and businesses must pay a monthly subscription fee. Since launching in May 2016, GoGetter has approximately 5,000 users and boasts 60 percent connection rate, Kinzie said. The app can be downloaded for free in iTunes, or accessed at www.gogetter247.com.

This article appears in L&L, issue 1, 2017