Most of the skill sets of the traditional printing industry are now shrink-wrapped. That is, they are programmes that do what skilled people used to do. Remember dot etchers and strippers? Skill sets keep changing, or disappearing. A printer in Rochester, New York, once wrote to the president of my university to complain that they hired one of my students and the student could not do paste-up. I had to explain to our president, an economist, that we do not do paste-up anymore. It is done on a screen. This article appears in Africa Print Journal.
I receive regular communication from printers who need an operator for a specific model of offset press, as though every school has one of each offset or digital press. My favourite request came when Adobe InDesign was just introduced — the printer wanted someone with two years' experience with the programme.
All this brings us to the question: where will the print workers of the future come from? Secondary schools can only teach the very basics, such as creating a file, setting up a workflow, making a plate, running a small offset or digital press, etc. University-level curricula can teach pre-flighting, colour science, process control and much more. But only the suppliers can teach you to run a modern offset press, or a state-of-the-art flatbed printer, or a finishing system.
As older workers on older machines retire, finding replacements will be near impossible. Even finding training on machines made before 2000 is a challenge. Many printers hang on to their equipment, literally, for generations. Even after the equipment is decommissioned, it is stored in an 'elephant’s graveyard' in the bowels of the plant, as though someday it will be dusted off and re-started like some 'mothball fleet'.
There is no simple solution. Technology not only obsoletes machines, it obsoletes the skills needed to run those machines. In the old days, unions were based on specific processes like Linotyping, engraving, etc. and they could supply skilled labour. Today, no single machine dominates and every supplier uses different approaches, terminology, and tools.
In the old phototypesetting era, printers found operators by 'stealing' them from other companies. One Alphatype operator moved from firm to firm, increasing their salary with each move.
As printing on substrates beyond paper advances, new skills will be needed. They may talk about 'lights-out' workflows which are highly automated, but someone still has to know how to set them up and maintain them. Even robots will need maintenance and updating, or will they do it themselves? After all, they are robots.
There needs to be partnerships between associations and education at every level with suppliers to the industry. It is a symbiotic relationship. Most schools cannot afford the very machines they need to teach with, so they use old technology to teach new technology. Too many of the suppliers of desktop software see schools as profit centres and do not support them very well. They should be donating software and support.
Printers, educators, suppliers and others are all in this together. We need to cooperate to train and educate the workforce of the future. Because that future comes every day.