Image for The Shifting Sands of Labor and Staffing Shortages

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By: Toni McQuilken

While the talking points have changed a bit in the past 12 months alone, the sentiment hasn’t: the staffing and skilled labor shortage continues to be a challenging subject commercial printers can’t afford to ignore. It isn’t a problem unique to the printing industry, but the pain points aren’t any less frustrating. Fortunately, there are things you can do to help mitigate the pressure.


The first step is to understand how the labor picture has changed over time. Dave Regan, CEO of Semper International, notes that there has been “a significant reduction in demand and increase in supply” when it comes to the overall industry staffing picture.

Jules VanSant, executive director of Two Sides North America, and vice chair of the Print & Graphics Scholarship Foundation (PGSF), goes into greater detail here, noting that the market “has gone a bit flat — the crescendo of 2022 into 2023 kind of died down and settled into a new reality for now,” she points out. “We didn’t see as many people retire because of other economic issues.”

Harvey Levenson, professor emeritus at California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo, doesn’t believe the changes have been all that significant in the past 12 months, and sees some persistent issues that still haven’t truly been addressed industry-wide. “There is still a shortage of skilled labor on the operational side of the printing industry,” he notes. “This has been building for decades. Quite frankly, the demise of skilled operators began when the need for craft skills requiring dexterity deteriorated.”

In practical terms, this means there is more unskilled labor out there than anticipated, so printing operations looking to fill positions with warm bodies will likely not have too much trouble. But it could be a bit more challenging for print providers seeking to hire people with technical skill sets. Even finding those with an aptitude for technology, and who want to learn printing industry skills, could be a bit more difficult than just filling a spot.

VanSant does believe there will be more shifts during 2024, however, so staying on top of the trends — and what the labor force is looking for — is critical to ensuring you attract and retain the top talent.

In particular, Levenson notes that printers will need to be willing to explore and embrace technology even more as we move into 2024 and beyond. “There’s much more interest in design and electronics than in other facets of print production,” he notes. “Part of the issue is that there is less being taught about print in schools, and more about electronics and digital technology across media platforms.

“Even the traditional college and university programs that used to focus mostly on print are now giving equal or more attention to preparing students in non-print digital media. I am of the opinion that traditional printers must explore diversifying into these other areas if they are going to be viable in the future,” he adds.


Fortunately, there are ways printers can make themselves more attractive to the labor pool, especially when it comes to the younger generations looking for a place to build a career.

1. Treat everyone with respect. Regan points out that it’s imperative to “treat job applicants with respect and dignity.” Looking to play games, or viewing them as replaceable even before they’re hired, will make your operation less attractive as a long-term option. Sure, you might land a temporary hire, but it is highly unlikely that they’ll stay long-term, or will be excited and willing to learn new skills.

2. Foster the right culture. It might seem cliché, but having a welcoming atmosphere, with a friendly team that looks to support one another, can be a key differentiator between why someone decides to work for you — or decides to go somewhere else.

Joe Marin, senior vice president, Member Services, at PRINTING United Alliance, elaborates, noting, “A positive and inclusive work environment is crucial for retention. Team members are more likely to stay if they feel valued, supported, and engaged in their workplace.”

3. Training is essential. “Employees are more likely to stay with a company that provides opportunities for career advancement, skill development, and continuous learning,” Marin says. Fortunately, there are a lot of training options out there today — far more than even just a few years ago, ranging from onsite seminars from industry vendors, to free webinars, to online classes that can be undertaken any time.

“The best advice for a printer looking to hire and retain top talent is to provide a path of continuous learning and development. Millennials and Gen Z want (and expect) opportunities to enhance their skills, stay updated on industry trends, and acquire new knowledge,” Marin continues. “Implementing a robust training program helps an organization attract the best-skilled individuals, and also contributes to retaining them by demonstrating your commitment to their professional growth. A mix of learning, mentorship programs, industry certifications, and training fosters employee growth and is the best way for your company to become the preferred place to work.”

That goes beyond just offering the standard onboarding, however. Knowing the opportunity for advancement and what it takes to be promoted within a company is essential to keeping employees motivated and sticking with a print provider from the outset of their careers, according to Levenson. “Companies can lean into this by learning more about prospective employee interests during the interview process, as well as study trends and developments that are published by associations and related organizations about the interests of new employees entering our field.”

By giving employees — and potential workers — the opportunity to focus on the things that excite them, and enabling training and education around those skills and topics, employers can cultivate loyalty that extends beyond a salary or benefits package.

4. Offer fair compensation. You can’t ignore the elephant in the room though: salary and benefits. VanSant notes that one of the things she’s seen on the rise among commercial printers is that they’ll interview a promising candidate who is excited about the opportunities print offers, “but then they can’t meet the pay this talent can earn in other industries. It’s a big problem.”

Commercial print providers — indeed, all of the printing industry — aren’t just competing with one another. They’re also competing with the Amazons, Microsofts, and Googles of the world — the high-tech industries and companies that also want to attract talented and passionate people to their payrolls.

Regan stresses that to be successful, printers need to “be responsive, define the position in a reasonable manner, and [offer] market rates.”

It’s not just the base salary that is important, either. VanSant points out that the young people she talks to often focus on work/life balance as a key element they look for in a company in which they want to build a long-term career. “It is very different from previous generations,” she notes. “If you can’t provide that flexibility, it is going to become a challenge long-term.”

5. Use modern language. To attract the type of people you ideally want to hire, you need to ensure the language from the initial job description, along with the way you describe the business in an interview, is compelling — and that it fits with the way the younger generations see the world, Levenson stresses.

‘The way printing leadership talks about our industry — the words they use — plays an important role in attracting good employees,” Levenson contends. “As I’ve emphasized for decades: stop referring to our industry as a vocational trade, referring to the practices within our companies as a craft, and referring to our companies as shops. These are ‘turn off’ descriptions.” Instead, he says, “refer to our industry as art and science, high-tech, focused on STEM, driven by electronics and computers, and focused on communication needs of society for today and tomorrow.”

Finally, just as you would with potential clients, VanSant suggests commercial printers create the definition of what they consider an ideal employee. “Visualize what you see the company becoming, come up with the metrics needed, what those roles would look like, and what those people look like. And then put that vision out there when you’re hiring.”

Being purposeful in the process from the very beginning, she says, will give printers a much better outcome when it comes to finding — and retaining — top talent in today’s world.