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The Writing on The Wall: Skills Shortage Affects the UK & European Label Printing Sector

Posted by David Lee on Aug 26, 2021 5:20:37 PM

Hybrid Flexo Coater Press

The so-called skills shortage has been a topic affecting many sectors across the developed world over the past few years – especially construction, manufacturing, engineering, transport and extending to many sectors of the printing industry, too. What it means, in effect, is there aren’t enough skilled workers in the market to fill all the available job positions. This creates a negative spiral of lower productivity, increased pressure on employees, stunted growth, and higher wage demands, that drives down performance across the industry.

What are the causes of the skills shortage?

There’s a debate raging about the main causes of the skills shortage, from deficiencies in education, pressure for school leavers to remain in higher education, to insufficient pay incentives, the gender gap in traditionally male dominated industries, a lack of relevant apprenticeships, difficulty recruiting from abroad, and high skill required to operate traditional equipment, the lack of investment of printing companies in new advanced Digital technology.  The situation is different in the UK, Europe, North America, and Australia, so it is unwise to draw broad-brush conclusions. However, an aspect that is regularly ignored by policymakers is the demographic aspect of the skills shortage.

The Silver Printers

The printing industry is steeped in tradition, and the career path for many of today’s top earners is similar to what it would have been 20, 30, 40 years ago. A new print press operator joins a firm fresh from school and undertakes an extended apprenticeship or on-the-job training over 5 to 10 years. Staff turnover is typically low, and staff often stay with the same employer for many years, so by the time a Printer is fully trained, they will have not only an impressive technical skill set, but a wealth of experience that they can pass on to newer employees.

In the same employment model, senior printers , supervisors, and managers are recruited from the shop floor, increasing team cohesion and ensuring that skills are retained and shared. New recruits reap the benefits of informal training from skilled operators in their 40s and 50s, supplementing and enhancing the theoretical skills learned during their apprenticeship.

For this recruitment and training model to work sustainably, there must be a steady stream of new people joining the industry as older and more experienced staff retire or move on. This is the root of the problem in the printing sector and, although it isn’t currently a major issue, is set to become one over the next 10-20 years if steps are not taken to address it.

The problem is that while older operators are retiring on cue, younger people are proving less interested in joining the printing sector. In many label printing businesses, it’s unusual to find many printing press operators aged under 30, and the average age is often 45 or older.

The reason for this is unknown, but the reputation of the label printing industry is unlikely to help its cause, especially if investment in apprenticeships is focused heavily on more glamorous areas of the printing sector such as commercial print.

British and European printing businesses are looking to 3 general strategies to offset the effects of the skills shortage:

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1) Intuitive printing technology

Printing presses – especially the older flexographic machines – are notoriously complicated pieces of equipment, requiring many years of training and practical experience to master. Technicians become accustomed to working on specific presses, and when they leave or become ill, this knowledge – which is often not written down – becomes lost, contributing to the skills shortage. An obvious solution to this conundrum is to make print technology easier to use. At Focus Label, for instance, we are working to make our new generation of presses as close to ‘plug and play’ as possible, reducing the training requirements for new machines, and requiring fewer advanced skills to get the best results from key equipment.

This wasn’t possible with older, analogue flexo presses, as these depended on a multistage, skilled printing process and had many movable parts that had to be carefully aligned, increasing the skill level required to operate them effectively. Our latest generation of Servo & hybrid digital presses, however, are far easier to use and forgiving to operate, leading to fewer mistakes and more efficient operation with less wastage. The skills shortage becomes less of an issue if less skill is required to operate each printing press.

Investment in new technology is key in attracting young people into the printing sector. The youth of today are already familiar with digital technology and have come to expect this as part of a normal aspect of their life. Industry can utilise the existing digital skills of school leavers for the benefit their business progress & development.

2) Recruit more women into the industry

Some of the most successful businesses in Printing and manufacturing over the past few years are those who have made a proactive attempt to attract more women into senior positions. We see a number of women within our printing industry in management roles, production control and in some cases on the printing press.  The fact is that there are hundreds of young women of school and university leaving age who are very keen to enter the printing sector, if only the opportunities were made available by company owners. Label printing businesses have a lot to learn from this approach, and by offering responsive apprenticeships and training to young female technicians and providing a welcoming and inclusive culture, they stand to benefit from a huge and untapped source of skills and talent.

Women in Print



3) Education, education, education

Label printing businesses often complain about the lack of apprenticeship programmes specific to their sector, and in this they are correct. But in the absence of official support, businesses in the sector benefit from collaborative approaches to industry-wide training programs, especially on-the-job schemes that aim to up skill current employees. The concept of Continual Professional Development, in which employees refresh and develop their skills on a regular basis, has had a proven result on productivity and staff retention in many industries, and these lessons are fully transferable to the printing sector.
Investment in formal training makes employees feel valued as well as increasing their productivity, and may incentivise experienced workers away from leaving the sector as much as higher pay and better working conditions. At the same time, opportunities for training and career progression may encourage a skilled person to move into printing from other related sectors bring a new dynamic to your business.


Advanced printing solutions from Focus Label

At Focus Label, we provide a range of advanced flexo & digital printing machines for all types of label printing businesses, supported by a comprehensive training and consultancy service to help your team get the best value from your investment. For more information, please call +44 (0)1949 836223.

Or email admin@focuslabel.com    www.focuslabel.com

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