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Printing Impressions-March 2004 Column
The Next Generation of Printers

EVERY NOW and then, somewhere in Florida , a group of former printing plant owners lunch together. I have it on reliable sources that most are relieved to be out of the business—an industry they once knew and loved and was so good to them. But, oh my, scary future changes will for sure shake print’s very foundation, leading to tough times, declining profits and perhaps more failures than growth.

This is not a unique viewpoint. As a former owner myself, I have talked to many other former industry executives and, all too often, I hear thinking similar to the Florida lunch discussion. No question, they are right about one thing: the changes to our industry will be traumatic. But that begs the question, Would you encourage your sons and daughters to embark on a career in the printing industry?

This is a fundamental question because it not only tests our confidence in our industry’s future, but looks at the strength of perpetuation since so many print shops have traditionally been a family affair. Now add to the equation the pressman—whose father was also a press operator—who is now contemplating whether or not to continue the family tradition. So you can see that it is more than just a management dilemma; rather, it concerns all of us.

Obviously, our kids are going to do what they want, but they still look to us for guidance. What do we say to our children? For that matter, what do we say to any young person who is looking to us for honest, sound advice?

First, I think we should take another look at the Florida lunch group. Sitting in the warm sunshine and reaping the benefits of a lifetime of hard work, most anyone would be inclined not to want to change their situation. Moreover, the dynamic changes confronting our industry really are scary and threatening. However, I feel confident that if any one of these relaxed sun soakers had to run a printing operation again, they would rise to the task.

Still, “cashing out” is a serious consideration, particularly in light of what may be considerable reinvestment to compete in the future. In many instances, it could be more lucrative and far less risky for you and your children to have the equity from selling your business.

If you have selected the path of perpetuating your enterprise, however, be certain that it is right for your children or any young person looking to you for guidance. Do they want to follow your footsteps? Are they aware of the many difficulties and challenges? Have you seriously evaluated whether they have the necessary skills to be successful? Being honest is the key to whether it is good advice to go into printing.

Your young person must be smart, hard working, tech savvy, creative, entrepreneurial and a risk taker to have a good chance at being successful. Remember that print is a very different business today. An investment in equipment used to last many years, so there was time to pay it off and get a good return, which is not the case today. Moreover, today’s printers had better be very good at finding markets and exploiting them with the new technology or they will always be behind the curve.

Having said all that, I ask who is better than the young to drive our industry forward? New challenges require new solutions. New solutions require a complete thinking metamorphosis for those of us that have spent years in the industry. Most importantly, new thinking is worthless without the drive and energy to make it happen. Young people have a fresh slate not encumbered by the past, and they possess the drive and energy to make it happen. Of course, they need our advice and wisdom tempered with our encouragement to pursue new solutions. But they are the future.

While young owners and managers can, and must, implement new solutions, all too often the result is a sad toll on the work force. My January 2001 column, “A Pile of Human Technological Debris,” touched on this subject and, to this day, has received the most e-mail response. We all know that highly skilled crafts like typography, stripping, retouching and scanning are either gone or in serious decline. The good and proud people that mastered these crafts are either unemployed, in another industry, or had to learn a new technological skill that more often than not resulted in a lower paying position.

Let’s use the example of a press operator to represent the skilled positions currently critical for printing. As of this moment a commercial sheetfed press operator is still a high paying, rewarding position. Although no one is saying that industry backbones like the 40­, six-color press is going to disappear any time soon, there are forces that may diminish the need for skilled press operators in the near future. For example, two months from now DRUPA will be featuring JDF (Job Definition Format) enabled presses. Hopefully, all of you are aware that JDF actually automates the manufacturing process and can control devices. Once again, I am not saying that three days, or even three years after DRUPA, presses will be so automated that there will be a diminished need for skilled operators. But, for sure, refinements in JDF or something new entirely will definitely automate the printing process sometime in the near future. Furthermore, conventional offset presses may give way altogether as digital presses become faster, cheaper and better. Or a new technology may appear that changes everything. Don’t believe it? Ask the typographers who thought the early desktop publishing programs were a joke.

So, if you are a press operator, what do you tell your son or daughter? First and foremost tell them that technology will not and cannot be stopped, not even by company owners, no matter how compassionate. Any manager that ignores technological advance to stay the course will be sowing the seeds of destruction for the whole company. There are no longer lifetime crafts like our forefathers may have counted on and no artificial way of perpetuating an outdated position. Yet there will be a future for print and it needs young, talented people.

So I would say, go ahead and become a press operator. Like so many other jobs in the graphic arts, it’s challenging and rewarding. But be constantly aware of technology’s impact. Read, learn and be ready to adapt and retrain so you are prepared when old job functions start to fall and new ones arise. Remember that print is not the only industry facing these problems. In fact, print may have a major plus that other industries lack. Due to its very nature, print may be less vulnerable to outsourcing as jobs from other industries are moving overseas in droves.

And let us not forget one of the most important positions in the printing profession—sales. Sales will also be impacted by change, particularly as solution selling becomes more important than job selling. More than ever, salespeople will be required to investigate, understand and match client needs to complex solutions. But, for the bright enterprising salesperson, the opportunities and rewards should exceed traditional job-by-job selling.

Yes, our industry will face some of the toughest challenges ever, challenges that will impact owners, managers, salespeople and the entire work force. Yet, with their energy, enthusiasm, drive, creativity and willingness to adapt, our sons and daughters can maintain the viability of the printing industry. It just may not look the same as what we see now.

Harry Waldman

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