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Printing Impressions-January 2001 Column
A Pile of Human Technological Debris
"GOODBYE BILL, I wish you the very best." I meant every word of it and more. In fact, I had a lump in my throat and a heavy heart as Bill walked out the door for the last time. I didn't own the company any more but, even if I did, under the circumstances, I probably would have been forced to make the same decision that the current owners had to make. Bill was a cameraman-the best there was. He was also a hard worker and a loyal employee. Yet, he had to be let go. So what went wrong and who was to blame?

In today's high-tech printing establishment a camera operator is as valuable as a Republican dimple counter in Florida. And if he was such a loyal, hard working employee, why wasn't he retrained? The future was not hiding anything from us; the handwriting had been on the wall for years. It was the same, plain as day script that foretold the demise of linotype operators, offset strippers and now drum scanner operators. Shame on management that does not implement an effective retraining program for good employees. After all, this is not only the right thing to do from the employee's standpoint, but it also makes good business, especially since high-caliber employees are not easy to recruit and keep. But those of us who have been there know it is just not that simple.

Bill, as a senior staff member and as a skilled camera operator, was at a top hourly rate. As a cameraman, he earned every penny of it. From a competitive standpoint, although high, it still was near prevailing rates and Bill more than made up for the difference with his productivity. We're all aware that your cost centers can't be higher than those of your competitors. If it is, it could jeopardize a company's well being, putting everyone's job at risk. Understandably, Bill wanted to maintain his current rate. Unfortunately, as hard as everyone tried, no suitable work could be found for Bill. He was unable to be retrained for skilled positions that had pay levels commensurate with his current level. The company was willing to hold his pay level, even if the new position paid a little less. But nothing was even close. Still, the attempt was made and Bill tried several other positions and his pay level was maintained. It just didn't work. Sadly, like the typographers before him, Bill landed on the pile of human technological debris. What a shame for a man that worked hard and was good at his skill. How do we as leaders prevent this human pile from growing?

First and foremost, every employee in the company must understand the manifest destiny that is change. Change will happen whether we want it to or not, and an employer has no power to stop it. In fact, the company itself can be as much a victim as any employee. In many instances, employees believe their particular skill will go on forever.

Plan For Retraining

Conversely, many employees live in terror that their job may be eliminated and, if so, that it's the employer's fault. Thus, employees must be educated to understand that their job could be eliminated, not by the company, but by new technology. Any printing establishment has no choice but to move ahead. In fact, a company needs to demonstrate to employees that it's cognizant of new developments by keeping workers aware of new technology, as well as showing that there's a plan for both new equipment and retraining.

It should be made clear that just as it is the company's job to explore new technology and to offer good training programs, it is the employee's job to be ready, willing and able to be retrained, if necessary. This means some learning on their own time. I have been amazed to hear of desktop operators who refuse to take manuals home to read about new software. Don't they realize that this is their career and that they need to do all they can to sharpen their skills? Yes, it is the company's responsibility to provide training, but it is also the responsibility of the employee to be an eager and attentive student, which often means doing homework. This all comes down to setting a realistic, appropriate atmosphere that change is inevitable; for everyone's survival, learning and perhaps complete retraining are essential. Once again, employees must be made to realize that change brought on by new technology or new market trends is not a mean spirited, maverick decision by the company to eliminate them. "Be aware and prepare-or you may not be there," should be a cry heard in all areas of the company. But, as in Bill's case, what if the new job is at a lower rate? This is not an easy question to answer. After all, nobody wants to take a pay cut. Part of making employees aware of the effect of change is that they may have to face the possibility that certain high-paying positions may be eliminated. And it's not the company's fault. This is a hard concept to even broach with employees and, consequently, many managers feel that it's best to leave it alone. But is it? And are you doing the right thing for your employees? If you're running a printing company, you should be no stranger to this problem. Tom, for example, was the best offset stripper I ever saw. And, in 1986, he was a bargain at $27 an hour. In the '90s, after looking at a number of possibilities, including a management position, the only avenue was to retrain Tom in desktop publishing-since the future of offset stripping was obvious. He felt that, eventually, it would result in a pay cut because most desktop operators were making far less. Of course, he was right and we agreed. Furthermore, we were up front with all the strippers. Tom left because he thought he had found another company that would resist industry changes. He was right: The company stayed just as it was-right up to the day it went out of business. Most of the other strippers did the same and, today, like Tom, they're doing something else at rates far below what they once earned. The answers are not easy and there's no one avenue that all can follow. However, I have found that companies which adopt solid retraining initiatives and are open, honest and informative, often cast less personnel on the pile of human debris.

While we're talking about training, let's take this one step further and ask: Are we training ourselves? Our sales force? So many managers and owners are just too busy to learn, and the sales staff is just expected to sell-all too often without knowing enough about their product or their craft. I know that this is not a startling revelation; it's an old song that I'm sure you have heard countless times. However, change is happening today at hyper-speed, which is exacerbating the need for constant training exponentially.

Not only do I consult within the printing industry, I also have corporate clients. I'm always amazed at how much money and attention major corporations (at least the ones with which I'm working) give to training. It's a vital part of the fabric of the company. Sales training, in particular, is a well-organized, massive effort that is ongoing. I realize that they have the money and resources most small printers don't have. But there are resources available for the small printer. Most important, every company should have a plan that elevates training to the importance it warrants in today's changing world.

Eat While You Educate

One corporate concept that we all could borrow is the "Lunch and Learn." Yes I know that you, like most printing companies, have lunch meetings with various departments to go over new developments. The "Lunch and Learn" takes this one step further as it is a well-organized, well-prepared training effort that is given on a consistent basis.

And how about training for your customers? I have put together programs for printing companies in cooperation with the major software providers that sell software used by both clients and their printers. In addition to the bright glow from the halo effect for the printer, it produces real business. And guess what? I have gotten the manufacturers to cover most of the expenses. (I can't go into details in this column, but you can e-mail me for more information.)

My column is all about where we are going and, hopefully, to peek into the future. However, I felt that it was important to stop and take into account the good people that work in our great industry. I know you've heard all this before, but if I made someone out there a little more aware of the need for open communication and solid retraining efforts-saving even one job from the human scrap heap-I was successful.

Harry Waldman

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