Not enough people, or not enough opportunity? 

The Labor Shortage in the Printing Industry

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

Print is an industry that has undergone 20 years of consolidation due to demand destruction. It is likely that a shrinking industry, even if it is now stabilizing, is not looking like a good bet for employees who want a growing industry where they can enjoy a thriving career.

Recruiters say

A global recruiter for printing industry manufacturers and software developers says skilled salespeople are a challenge to find. In particular, companies that manufacture printers, printheads, software etc. need skilled and experienced workers and are actively seeking these highly skilled people. But luring them with higher pay and benefits has not reduced the shortage.   

 Another US based recruiter in Nevada cites retention as the issue. Even with alternating 3- and 4-day weekends made possible by twelve-hour shifts and a thirty-six-hour week, people do not see a career path that includes advancement opportunities. Keeping workers more than a year has proven next to impossible as they seek other industries where a more rewarding career path is visible and achievable.   

 Is it the increase in business as companies rush to gear-up post pandemic shut down that has caused a sense of a labor shortage? Or is that there are greener pastures? Is there more business now than before the pandemic before the last decade? Before the last two decades? Or is the perceived labor shortage because the print industry is less than attractive compared to the growth of other, newer industries?


The printing franchise industry offers a chance to be an owner of a small business. Among the benefits a franchise operation provides is a solid business model and knowledge resources. Among those resources is training for both owners and employees. All are aware of the need for trained, skilled employees. 

 Live and recorded online training and written training guides on specific subjects are part of startup programs at FSI, Inc., a large printing franchise whose brands include Sir Speedy, PIP, and Signal Graphics. Dave Sigafus, Director of Business Development explained, “Yes we are very aware of this (labor shortage) and train extensively. Not only during in person visits at franchise locations, but we also train to this at our Sales Forum, Convention and Regional Training events. Even with all the training, it is certainly a tough time.”   

 The UPS Stores (TUPSS) headquarters in San Diego, California has dedicated space for training in all aspects of servicing print, from web-to-print to design services. Even though print is not the core product for TUPSS, they recognize the importance of the service and skills to provide quality. Eighty percent of the walk-in and mailbox customers have a small business. It is a perfect model for printing product sales leads. They need to be ready when the opportunity presents.

Employee turnover in franchise operations is typically high. This likely due to the limited chances for advancement. The best opportunity is to learn how a franchise is run and then buy your own. Many are family run businesses, and this also impacts on the ability to receive a promotion.

Union Shops-Family Owned

“Long term employees (critical operators) are aging out- with no clear source for new talent.”  Voiced by four commercial and trade shop owners

Coleman “Corky” Bye III – Mercantile Press 

 “SBA HUBZone funding has made hiring low skilled workers from the local area and affordably provide training. This has proven successful especially for staffing during peak seasons.” The Union is typically not a source for labor. (More on the role the two major unions play is addressed after this section on Union Shops). Coleman explained “The family business has survived due to our culture of maintaining long term employees and making them feel part of the family-owned business. “   Seasonal peaks for the shops I spoke with are significant staffing challenges. No real feed from colleges such as RIT, Clemson, or Cal Poly SLO. Coleman tried the schools, “but the candidates were trained for management/admin/sales roles rather the shop floor. Not for the type of labor needed, manufacturing labor, press operators, converters, etc.”   

 John Lompa, Owner of Trade Litho, saw “massive” labor savings with his initial adoption of Komori GL40 press almost two decades ago. He just upgraded to the GL40 Advance Perfector expecting to reduce the labor cost per job. John explains "The operator-friendly platform reduces touchpoints, saving both time and labor,” and adds “enhanced automated features make it possible to get to color quickly, which also saves on labor.” His experience with one set of quality focused art directors saw them signing off on 2nd pulls for the majority of a complex job. In the best-case scenarios with these clients, 4-6 pulls were typical. The labor saved through the choice of the right equipment for the type of work a shop runs is critical in maintaining margins and satisfied customers. In effect, this has relieved some of the pressures finding new, skilled operators.   

 But as with the franchise operations, family-owned businesses offer less chances to advance in the organization, with willing and able family members expected to be promoted first. For younger workers looking at their future, other industries may offer a better chance for growth.   

 The shops contacted indicated their long-term employees were the core. It was staffing for an occasional retirement that was more common than general shortage of labor. Their best source is a familiar path, experienced prepress and press operators from other shops. Since print shops are typically unique in how their respective workflows are configured (hardware choice, software integration) some training is required to bring new hires up to speed.   

 As for wages, each of the shops explained they are Union which is essential for getting the large political accounts or work with unionized companies such as the film studios. Interestingly, all paid their floor labor 30-50% higher than labor contracts called for. It was said, sotto voce, that some local chapters complained this caused issues for other union shops. While meritocracy can be challenging, competition is healthy for both management and labor.


Unions Logos

INKISH reached out to the two major Unions, GCIU and CWA. INKISH contacted the presidents of both unions in the Washington D.C. offices. We have not received a response at the time of publication. If we do, we will report on what they are doing regarding the printing industry labor shortage. As mentioned in the Union shop section earlier in this article, Unions are not the go-to resource for workers. That may indeed be a model of days-gone-by. Information on the websites indicate their concentration is on lobbying the legislature on issues deemed important to labor. Important, no doubt, but providing skilled labor seems relegated to the locals. Trouble is there is no information on the main website about providing skilled labor. We extracted sections on training but that is the extent of a readily available information. It is possible that the telecom industry, being much larger and still growing has eclipsed printing as a major focus. Print industry consolidation has its challenges.

Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU) President Kurt Freeman 

 From the website: “The Graphic Communications Conference (GCC) represents workers in all craft and skill areas in printing including newspapers, magazines, catalogs, books, high end commercial print, plastics for the food and medical industry, packaging including corrugated box and paper food containers, metal cans for food and industrial liquids, engraving and gravure for flooring and wallpaper, credit cards, government employees who print US and Foreign currency, passports and secure ID’s.   We have members throughout the United States and Canada.” 

 Training and Education: "GCC/IBT members can study for journey status or update their technical skills through Graphic Arts Institutes or apprenticeship programs operated by GCC/IBT local unions. The schools use up-to-date technology, including desktop training equipment, and instructors are experienced experts in their areas. For members who do not have access to the schools, GCC/IBT offers apprentice training in web press using on-line and other formats. For more information, contact your local union or select the following link to go to the GCC/IBT’s Distance Education website.”   

 President, IAPTA; CWA Union Label; and Printing, Publishing Representative Steve Deianni From the website

 “CWA, our union represents workers at a diverse range of printing, publishing and media occupations in daily newspapers; commercial printing and mailing operations; graphic design; specialty manufacturing, publishing and distribution; and the U.S. Government Printing Office.”

Skilled labor resource

Derrick Rankin, Vice President of Professional Services for RICOH North America oversees their AUGMENTED STAFFING SERVICE. 

Derrick explains, “Over 100 service technicians throughout North America with extensive print operations experience comprise the staffing service. Their primary function is to resolve field issues as on call problem solvers.” He continues with “When a customer has a short-term need for a skilled operator it is these technicians that answer the call. It is not only for RICOH equipped shops. Their experience is practical and comprehensive as they have come from commercial, in-plant and trade operations.”  RICOH has provided coverage for an employee loss, vacation, and peak season needs. Derrick added, “The breakdown of the users of this service is about 50/50. Half in-plant and half Print-for-Pay.”

When providing service to a school district’s print operation, RICOH was asked to advise their administrators in vocational training programs instruction on how to build a curriculum for students. They recognized the value of the service and skills seeing value in adding it to the available programs. It is interesting to note that graphic production programs have disappeared from the vocational trade schools, or Regional Occupation Centers (ROC) as they are identified in California. The interest by the CTE Directors to add print operations training is an encouraging sign that a technical career in print seems viable long-term; at least as viable as the programs currently run that include, welding, EMT certification, wildfire fighting and heavy equipment operations. These are skills that will not see a decrease in demand anytime soon. 

 The University level programs from RIT, Clemson and Cal Poly provide management level education; the ROCs look to address the shop floor skillsets. More industry participation is critical to print’s own future. INKISH recently attended a client focused exhibition by DURST in their Italy headquarters. Customers observing their technology in a complete ecosystem of software, third party solutions and output options was impressive, more than any trade show environment. It would be interesting and productive to offer 60-day intern programs to vocational students to work in a given company’s fully equipped demonstration center. The industry needs to look after itself to overcome any lack of talent.

The future state of printing

Printing is barely growing as an industry sector.          

Don’t panic.      

Print is not dead; it simply is growing at a snail’s pace. New product lines seem viable for current print operations to adopt such as direct-to-object and printed textile manufacturing. But as long as manufacturing is the product, the commodity risk remains, and downward price pressures will remain. And growth will remain a challenge.

To attract new blood, those younger warm bodies into the industry, there must be a clear path to achieve, to grow and succeed. For this to realize, Print will be something else, and called something else. The demand destruction print has undergone for the past two decades has stabilized. Digital advertising is going through a similar demand destruction phase only much faster as technology is prone to do. As for labor shortages, the survivors have survived; the smart and action oriented have succeeded. As with most problems the industry has faced, this too shall pass. What is the new paradigm? 

INKISH intends to explore the possibilities of what print as we know it is to become, and what the innovative model will look like. 

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