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Workforce woes: hiring and retaining young workers

Workforce woes: hiring and retaining young workers

Workforce woes are nothing new to the label industry; hiring and retaining younger workers continues to be a concern for both suppliers and converters. Rather than focus solely on hiring millennials, or even Gen Z workers, it is worthwhile to see what it takes to keep them. 

In the first issue of 2020, L&L reported on the continuous struggle of workforce development; in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is worth investigating what has changed and what has remained the same. Prior to the pandemic, the employment rate was low enough to warrant being called ‘the tightest labor market in recent history’. The small talent pool to fill positions was holding back growth of the industry. Despite the influence of the pandemic, this has not changed.

“There is such a wide spectrum in the industry, from the beautifully decorated wine and spirits labels that might interest someone with an eye for art, to the vaccine labels and the temperature sensitive materials that appeal to someone who loves science. There is something for everyone”

Statista reported in December 2020 the number of unemployed Americans was over ten million, almost double the December 2019 unemployment number of 5.84 million. However, December 2020 was much better than April 2020, which saw peak unemployment at over 23 million people. In spite of these large employment fluctuations, the label industry has been relatively stable. During 2019 the National Association of Manufacturers reported 522,000 US manufacturing jobs were open in the Unites States; while that number dipped during the pandemic, nearly half a million manufacturing jobs remain open.

Chad Moutray, chief economist at the National Association of Manufacturers, reports: ‘Manufacturing job openings in August reached 460,000. This improvement suggests that firms are once again increasing their interest in adding new workers, even as the sector attempts to rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic and the overall labor market has changed dramatically.’

The essential nature of manufacturing, specifically within the label industry, has proven to be a buffer from the steep unemployment rates other sectors are facing. With this stability and security in pay, the printing industry should be attracting younger workers, many of whom are burdened with tremendous student loan debt. Forbes reported that the national student loan debt in the US increased by 170 billion USD during 2020. Far cheaper than a traditional four-year college education, the path to the skilled trades should be beckoning younger generations closer with the promise of a shorter, less expensive education, steady pay, and a market full of opportunity. Yet the predicament of selling print to younger workers continues into 2021. 

The primary issue is awareness, of the industry as a whole and of the opportunities within it. A common complaint of recruiters is that printing is not a ‘sexy’ industry and that is deterring young, eligible workers away from promising positions. 

‘I think people don’t know just how sexy labels are,’ said Dale Coates, engagement director at TLMI. ‘There is so much fascinating science that goes into the entire process, from the supplier chemistry to what the converters have to do, and the fantastic designs people come up with to make the product more marketable. Maybe we just aren’t doing a good enough job of marketing how sexy these products are.’

Because there are so many facets to the label industry, there are many avenues of success within it. Lauren Walsh, director of operations at TLMI, comments: ‘There is such a wide spectrum in the industry, from the beautifully decorated wine and spirits labels that might interest someone with an eye for art, to the vaccine labels and the temperature sensitive materials that appeal to someone who loves science. There is something for everyone. It is just hard to get in front of each person and point out what is in it for them.’ Walsh admits that ‘solving the recruitment and retainment issues can feel like climbing Mount Everest.’

To address this lack of awareness, TLMI established a workforce development committee which is dedicated to growing and retaining the print workforce. According to Jessica Harrell, director of technologies at Anderson + Vreeland and TLMI workforce development committee member, one of the biggest challenges to getting young people into the industry is the expectation that college is necessary for success.

‘A lot of people are telling their kids they need to go to college even if they don’t really want to,’ says Harrell. ‘College is great, but it may not be for everybody. There are a lot of good jobs that don’t require a four-year degree in our industry; the issue is letting people know they can make decent money without those education costs.’

To help with the financial burden the expectation of education brings, TLMI offers scholarship opportunities as part of its recruitment efforts. It offers both two- and four-year scholarships for students pursuing a career in the print industry. 

‘One of the things we started doing two or three years ago is inviting the four-year scholarship award winners to the annual meeting,’ Harrell says. ‘They get to interact and speak with some of the members and have that opportunity to really see what the organization is about. I think that is helpful because instead of the experience just being a website or maybe a couple of phone calls, the students get to really engage and immerse. That’s been a really positive experience for them.’

Hands-on engagement seems to be one of the best ways to get people into the industry; however, workers often need experience to get experience. Linnea Keen, president of TLMI, says: ‘We put a lot of gravity into people’s experience, which is a challenge. When you are recruiting for certain positions, you may be looking for new perspective, energy and skill set but you want them to have experience. Potential candidates may be right out of college or new to the area and lack relevant experience – it’s a catch-22.’

Keen continues: ‘Whether in the office or on the operating floor, the industry is really starving for qualified employees. Our members, both converters and suppliers, are faced with the same challenge. In some cases, the company may be a family-owned business, so there is a lot of family involved in it or very tenured employees. The question is how to attract younger people and create opportunity that interests them.’

To resolve the experience issue, Keen explains what some companies are doing to accommodate new hires. ‘As everybody is challenged with this, some companies are creating new positions or entry-level positions that may require slight, non-industry related experience, or a targeted skill set so the candidate can join the company to learn the business and industry with the potential to progress within the organization.’

While these new positions remove some barrier to entry, hiring younger employees may be only part of the problem: how do companies keep them? A survey by Glassdoor found that a third of employees in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have experiences or witnessed ageism while at work; the US reported the highest rate, followed by the UK, then France and Germany. 

According to Glassdoor, ‘Ageism is a prominent form of discrimination across all countries represented in this study and significantly more younger workers across the UK and France report experiencing or witnessing this type of discrimination than their older peers. With Generation Z entering the workplace, and people working longer before retiring than ever before, we are seeing a significant range of ages within companies. Businesses must ensure they treat all employees as individuals — no matter their age — in order to get the best out of their workforce.’

“Prior to the pandemic, the employment rate was low enough to warrant being called ‘the tightest labor market in recent history’”

Perhaps because Millennials, and now Gen Z, are more likely to experience ageism in the workplace, they are the demographics that are more passionate about diversity and inclusion in the workforce. The survey found that 62 percent of Millennial employees in the US and UK said their company ought to be putting more effort into increasing the diversity of the workers; this rate was also over 50 percent in France and Germany. 

The print industry is not exempt from ageism. At the recent Future Print Virtual Summit, day one focused on ‘Young guns’ in print and the experiences of young people in the industry. Karis Copp of FM Future, Mikaela Harding of Avery Dennison, Amanda Brown of Drytac, and Dempsie Giles of Black Dog Digital sat down to discuss how they all ended up in the print industry in the session ‘Falling into print’. As young women, they shared their experiences of what it is like to work in the print industry both as a woman and as a younger worker

A side effect of the workforce gap in hiring and retaining younger workers is that it creates a disconnect in transferring knowledge from older employees. Karis Copp addressed this: ‘There is certainly a skills gap issue as well. We do need to make sure we are closing that and taking advantage of the knowledge that people who have been in the industry a bit longer have.’

Harrell agreed: ‘I think everybody realizes there needs to be a variety of ages, at least I hope people do, because people don’t want to work when they are 70 or 80 and there needs to be a good change over and a good transition.’

This transition from the older generation to the younger is crucial for a successful succession of skills and leadership. Harvard Business Review in the article ‘Am I old enough to be taken seriously?’ addressed how damaging this gap can be: ‘When older workers doubt the competency of those younger than them, they fail us. They are not helping the next generations develop transferable skills. They’re building barriers of mistrust.’

Rather than have a one-way exchange of knowledge, potentially with a bit of mistrust from the older generation in the younger, there is room in the industry for a give and take of insights from both older and younger workers. ‘You need that experience and that knowledge, and the younger people will learn that,’ said Giles. ‘But equally there could be a few other things that the older generation could learn from the younger.’

While younger workers do not have the same experience level as older workers, they will never develop that experience if they are not given an opportunity to grow. Similar to the catch-22 Keen addressed, companies want seasoned employees who can progress within the company and be decision makers, yet they do not create an environment that builds up younger employees.

Amanda Brown sees this lack of developing younger employees at tradeshows. ‘It is important to have younger people attend the shows,’ she said. ‘Companies don’t always bring the younger people to the shows because they are not necessarily the decision makers, but I think it is important because one day they will be. If they are able to learn now, then they will be able to make better decisions later on and have more of a voice in the industry.’

While age is a hot topic in the industry, and the concerns with replacing the ageing workforce are justified, age is not an insurmountable issue. Skill, willingness to learn, and hard work are far more important. 

‘Regardless of how old you are, whether you are in the older generation or the younger generation, I’d encourage: don’t be put down by that. It’s all about working together and trying to ultimately make the best thing happen, bringing ideas to life. Don’t let age put you off,’ said Giles.

Harrell echoed Giles’s comments: ‘You just have to push your way through, no matter what your age is. I think there are opportunities there for everybody. Sometimes you might have to change people’s perceptions but if you do a good job and you push and work hard, there is opportunity for everybody.’

“It is important to have younger people attend trade shows. Companies don’t always bring younger employees to the shows because they are not necessarily the decision makers, but one day they will be. If they can learn now, then they will make better decisions later on and have more of a voice in the industry”

The print industry and the opportunity it offers are not going anywhere anytime soon, but its workers will be. As more and more Baby Boomers and members of Generation X retire, they will leave behind big shoes to fill. Without a culture in place to cultivate and train younger workers, the industry will be in danger of being under-staffed and under-educated.

Culture may be the missing element of drawing in and keeping younger employees. ‘Company culture is very important in retaining any employees, especially young entry level employees,’ said Walsh. If employees feel valued and appreciated, with a good group of people around them, they are more likely to stay at the organization. 

‘Getting involved with the trade organizations can really help young people stay in the industry,’ added Brown. ‘They provide support and create a network of people who are around our age, which is helpful to build connections and relationships.’

However, culture is not just organizations or associations, nor is it a trendy office space. According to Keen, ‘Company culture makes a big difference for employees, but it is so varied by company and is dependent on the individual. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a hip and cool office; maybe employees want to be autonomous or maybe they want to work collaboratively in a team or have a good work-life balance. Maybe they value and identify with the company’s vision and mission or want the company to be environmentally sensitive and work on sustainability initiatives.’ 

There is no one size fits all with culture, but it can be a powerful tool in attracting younger employees. Demonstrating that a company offers an accommodating and growth-focused environment may be invaluable in the recruitment process and help to bring label companies to the forefront of the hiring field. 

‘It would be great if students were coming out of school, from programs other than graphic communications, thinking about the label industry as possible employers,’ said Walsh.

The future of the industry could be very bright, but it starts with the interns, the new hires, and the entry level employees. Companies need to treat younger employees as if they not only have a future at the company, but as if they could be the future of the company.