If you’ve been keeping up with my content for the past year, you’re probably well aware of my continuous drive to tackle the talent threat and leadership shortage facing the print industry. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to have a discussion with Cathy Skoglund, Director of the ASU Print & Imaging Lab, regarding our thoughts on these issues and what we’re doing in order to confront them. Cathy is on the education side of this conversation, so she has experience developing talent and transitioning them into the industry. Check out our Q&A below!
Q: Tell us a little about yourself, Cathy.
I have a degree from ASU in Graphics Information & Technology. I work with companies within the digital print industry and help grow them to about 35-40 employees, then move on to the next venture. The ASU Print & Imaging Lab is my fourth one, but it’s my first time working in the educational arena. In over the past 10 years, we’ve really converted this lab into a state-of-the-art facility that employs ASU students.
Q: How many students have you had as part of your staff here at the lab?
We’ve had right around 120 students. The GIT program itself has over 800 students. Currently, 18 of them are working here. Every year, however, that number grows as our lab gets bigger. We have a succession plan in place to hire three more students this month and three more in March because nine of them will be graduating and transitioning out of our facility in May.
Q: What kind of degrees do the students working for the print lab have?
We have GIT degrees here, but we also have Human Resources, Software Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Business, etc. Most of the students here attend our Polytechnic campus, but we also have some that come from the main campus in Tempe.
Q: Are the students coming out of the lab with real-world experience?
Yes. Our lab is a print company. It’s exciting that these students are not only studying in their respective fields, but they’re gaining actual hands-on training with various components of the work environment. It’s nice because what they’re learning in the classroom is actually making sense here.
Q: How are you liking it here?
I love it in here. It is challenging because our workforce is constantly changing with students graduating and leaving our lab. Fortunately, we’ve brought on some full-time employees, so their consistency has made it a lot easier. Our goal is to start bringing on more and more students. We’re very proud to say that we have a 99% success rate for students finding jobs sometime before or shortly after their graduation. Most of them find jobs here in the Phoenix area, but I’ve had students find jobs outside of Arizona. What’s really nice about our lab is that all the students who have come through here stay in touch with us and one another. If ever they’re looking for new opportunities, they usually contact me. It’s very a rewarding experience.
Q: As somebody who is sitting on the education side of the conversation and training students for work in our industry, what concerns do you have about the future of print?
Let’s face it. The print industry is getting older. I heard that the average age of a worker in the industry is 47 years old. I just don’t feel like a lot of these print owners have a great succession plan for bringing in some fresh, newer, younger people to keep their company moving forward.
Q: You’ve mentioned students having success with finding jobs after graduation. Do you usually have recruiters coming to you to hire your students, or do the students go out with their resume, filled with experience, and find a job themselves?
It’s a bit of both, but honestly, I have a pretty big network of people out in the industry. Normally when people are looking to bring somebody on board, I’ll receive an email saying “hey, do you have anyone available?” It especially happens right around graduation time. I’ll typically connect them with some of my students on email and they take it from there. And a lot of our students get four or five interviews which gives them the ability to select a job that works best for them. They don’t really end up having to actively seek out a job because the demand for talent is so high that people are coming to me asking to hire one of them.
That’s a good and a bad thing. For me, I think the excitement for our industry is the transition we’re going through. I know it’s risky and unnerving, and it’s not something that the industry has had to deal with before. There’s a pretty big leadership separation from the Millennials coming out of school and the 45+ year-old executives of those print organizations. I think that’s a pretty intimidating and realistic thing these older guys have to deal with. However, the more involved they can get in the process of on-boarding younger people, the better. With kids graduating in the spring, summer, and winter seasons, there’s plenty of opportunity to hire on new talent.
I agree. The problem is that a lot of print workers have been in the industry for 25-30 years and don’t have a high turnover rate. You’re right in that they haven’t had to deal with this before. This new generation isn’t going to be staying at a company 25-30 years. I just don’t see that happening.
Right, unless you have a strategy. I think that’s a big part of it. The typical on-boarding strategy for most printers is “okay, we need a new person in bindery/CSR/prepress.” They either promote from within or they go out, bring somebody in, and have them shadow Joe over there for a few weeks before they take over. You can’t do that.
This new generation needs a constant new challenge. If you sit them in one spot and make them do the same thing over and over, they’re going to look for a new opportunity. And I think there’s a bit of a misnomer that they’re lazy, lack focus, and don’t know what they’re doing. I have found it to be quite the contrary. If you give them latitude and are willing to take the risk of giving them a project that’s a little beyond their skillset and comfort level, they thrive.
Q: When we talk about a talent development strategy, it’s one thing is to identify a source of talent. It’s a whole different thing to bring them on board. Do you see a concern there for students who get hired and end up in a situation where they’re essentially lost and don’t know what to do?
It does happen, unfortunately. The problem is that I don’t think these younger people are being taken seriously enough. They aren’t given enough leverage to try new things. They come into a work environment with outdated policies and a lack of diversity in their role and end up becoming bored and frustrated.
What’s the number one complaint you get from younger kids who end up in a situation like that?
Honestly, I believe the biggest frustration is that they aren’t given a chance to use their talents. It’s such an eye opener. Companies are not taking advantage of what these kids can do. The way they look at it, if you’re in prepress, you’re in prepress. That’s it.
But today they know a better way to do something, yet these executives and senior workers won’t listen to them. They see them as a threat because they don’t know about how things have been for the past 25-30 years. As a result these kids get shot down on any new ideas. If our industry would just stop, listen, and give them some time to make their position better, they will thrive. What’s more is that these companies would be even happier to pay these kids for their work. Honestly, a lot of the students coming out of my lab could replace two people with their skill sets.
You’re right. A lot of these students who are degree-holding individuals, especially graduate level degrees, come out of here with a couple years of experience already. You’re not taking someone off the streets that you need to train from the ground up. This is the advantage of having a talent development strategy. When these kids are already equipped to work at your company, you’re taking less risk when bringing them on board. Step outside of your comfort zone, give them the opportunity to do their thing and work towards a higher level of income, and they will thrive. I, too, hear a lot about kids who try to make things better at their jobs only to be held back by their leaders.
I also think it’s really important for these companies to be a mentor to them. I mean these jobs are only their second or third job. They still need somebody to show them the ropes, but they can also provide them with a better way of handling those ropes. It’s a two-way street.
Q: How do you keep your finger on the pulse of the industry? How do you stay involved with what’s going on and understanding what concerns there are in relation to your job and developing talent here at ASU?
I attend a lot of conferences. I belong to the Association of College and University printers; I belong to the Dscoop community; I sit on the board of Western States Print Alliance; I play an active role with ASU’s preferred vendors list. Needless to say I take many tours, and I usually bring along students to help involve them in what’s happening in our industry. That constant exposure allows me to prepare these kids for what to expect when they graduate.
Q: What do you guys (Jake and Cathy) look for in recruiting talent?
Right now, we’re looking for what I call “utility players.” The more experience, the more skills, the better. What we’re learning in our model is that the ebb and flow of the business requires people to wear multiple hats. We’re all working on tighter margins and tighter deadlines. We’re all working on bigger, quicker customer requests. We have to be very nimble.
I refer to this as the difference between being a service provider and being a manufacturer. The days of print companies being a manufacturer where you take a request, give them a price and a timeline, then plan production around that are gone. The people who are succeeding are the service providers that are going to the clients asking “what the problems do you need us to solve,” and then creating solutions for them. In order to do that you need a team who is very nimble, very flexible, and very creative. That’s the excitement for the younger generation: the opportunity to quickly learn something new and apply it. I think that’s a key attribute in our organization.
It’s what I love about the program you have here at ASU. The kids who have been here for a couple years have touched every aspect of the business at some point. They’ve dealt with customer complaints, tight deadlines, production use, prepress issues, web-to-print… they live that life. They don’t know it any different, so you don’t have to have that conversation of “how it used to be.” That’s why I get so tired of hearing that.
That doesn’t mean you need a team of just that, though. We have some very, very talented traditional tradesmen who have been in the industry for 20-30 years working alongside this next generation of talent. In some scenarios, they’re even reporting to them. But to have both the specialized tradesmen and the younger generation working with each other really gives us the ability to remain flexible and tackle larger customer requests.
It’s interesting that you say that because you–out of all the industry folks I know–have really taken advantage of hiring students out of the print lab (two of which are in director positions already). My concern when I place these employees out in the industry is to make sure they go to a place where their talents are going to be put to good use. You yourself have been a mentor to them. You see how they can fit into your organization, and that’s rare. I don’t see that very often. I hear people say they’re willing to do that, but I don’t necessarily see that actually happening.
Right. You can’t just use them to plug a hole, run the machine, and work their way up like that. They’ll get frustrated, they’ll burn out, and they’re going to leave. That’s how the reputation starts of “oh they’re lazy, they don’t want to work, they don’t want to be here, they can’t focus, they’re not loyal…” all of these types of criticisms they get. What happens is–much like many of the issues I’ve learned about in the industry–that you need to take a look in the mirror. You have to realize that what you’re doing is a reflection of who you are as a leader and what you’re doing to support them and take them to the next level.
Especially when they’re new and a little afraid. They join a whole new company with all these new people…
Yeah. I mean we have a 25-year-old Director of Operations with three years of experience leading a group of men in their 40s and 50s who have 25-30 years under their belt. That’s a real challenge, and even to this day I help support her on a regular basis. But we gain, learn, change, and improve so quickly now–so much quicker than we did in the past when we were just kind of going with the flow. There’s definitely risk; there are definitely challenges; there are definitely some difficult conversations. But you have to pick a horse and ride it. You can’t just pick and choose when you’re going to be that support. If you’re willing to take that risk now, you’re going to have a much easier time with the next generation in the long run when the current generation retires and you’re forced to make the decision anyways.
Exactly. And I think one of your successes is because you hired more than one. I mean if just one was recruited, do you think they’d have a harder time since they don’t have anyone they know or anyone they can relate with very easily?
Yeah. We all know that if you’re working in an environment with like-minded people, it’s more comfortable. When a young kid comes in and has to work alongside people who have children, grandchildren, and don’t necessarily have the same interests, it’s definitely a challenge. I think the more you can build a culture around having these two work next to each other, the better. There’s a bit of a misnomer that you have to have an entire team of 20-somethings, but you can find that happy balance. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of people in the industry who’ve been around a lot longer that want a fresh environment and are willing to work with younger folks.
I think that’s the bigger key here: to have people who are excited about the opportunity and don’t feel threatened by this next generation. It’s not unique to print, either; this is a universal theme. It’s understandable if they do feel threatened about having this new kid come in with all these ideas and wanting to do all these different things. It’s intimidating. Your knowledge and well-being is being challenged, but that’s just how we are as humans.
That’s the bigger issue to get around, but you have to make sure that the older generation is working with the new generation in a productive manner. You have to make sure they’re educating and developing them and not just hushing them and putting them in the corner, because that’s when you, Cathy, start getting the calls back from kids saying “hey, I hate this, I’m not utilizing my skills here and I need to go somewhere else.”
Q: We’ve talked about your amazing resume, which I want to make a point of how humble you are about it. We’ve talked about the industry from your perspective as an educator and from my perspective leading a print organization. How do we bridge this gap and help support each other in terms of this looming talent threat print is facing?
The fact that we’re sitting here talking to each other about it is the first step. We need to realize that we have to put a succession plan in place for our companies. Printers need to get more involved with their nearby educational institutions. They need to get involved in recruiting and career services.
What institutions outside of Arizona come to mind in regards to doing just that?
Clemson, Cal Poly, and RIT–to name a few–who are very involved with networking within the print industry and making sure their students are connected with future opportunities. The industry has to take advantage of this. They need to take these students under their arm; pay for them to go to a conference; fly them out; let them hang with your staff; let them learn how things work. It’s a great way to get to know them and for them to get to know you before you can make that decision to hire them.
I agree, and the sooner you can start that relationship, the better. There is no excuse for not being able to do this now.
Absolutely, and I think the print industry needs to start promoting themselves. You’ve said it yourself: the industry is not on the radar. It doesn’t sound like a sexy industry to get into, but it really is! I mean if you think about all the computers, all the automation, all the software… that’s all part of print. People don’t consider how print is made in our day and age. There is a lot of technology involved. The industry needs to start advertising that to young people if they want to attract them.
Right, and I think another thing the industry can do is provide internships. Give them the chance to work with you while they’re in school so you can engage with them at an early level.
Exactly, and our lab here is a great place to do that. Our senior students have projects that require some real-world integration. Companies can come here and work with them on completing those projects while also establishing a relationship with them. If they’re happy with the students’ work, they can make that decision to hire them right there.
Basically, printers need to get off their ass and get out there. There is plenty of opportunity to develop the next generation of talent and virtually no excuse in not doing so.
Q: So the obvious, trendy, buzzy way to ask this to you: what does the future of print look like to you?
You know, I am definitely tired of hearing the print is dead. It is not dead, but it has changed a hell of a whole lot. It’s actually gotten better. The technology has gotten better, which has caused marketing to get better. I think so many have turned to email marketing only, and I imagine that’s not being very effective anymore. Click rates have gone down. I don’t know about you, but my email inbox is my to-do list. Anything that has nothing to do with my work, it’s deleted.
I think there needs to be a whole lot of collaboration. We shouldn’t be doing just print. We shouldn’t be doing just email. Everything has to come together. Everyone needs to know a little of everything involved in that process. So is our industry viable? Absolutely. I think certain print items are going to become a commodity because people will miss that touch and feel. But I think it’s going to be more about things I want to know about. I don’t want a hunting magazine; I belong to a labrador retriever rescue!
Data is such a hot topic right now that not many know how to do really well. I think that if you’re in school right now, you should definitely start learning about data and how it works if you’re going to work in print. We’ve been talking about variable data communication for 20 years. I would love for people to quit talking about it and actually start using it.
I really think that this is a very viable industry. I want more students to get involved in it. The industry needs to start creating succession plans and really start getting some fresh faces into their companies–and get them to stay!
Yeah, and to your point, it has consolidated and changed drastically. I think it’s better and stronger now that it has been. I mean I haven’t been around the industry as long as you have, but in the 7-8 years I’ve been involved, it’s stronger than it was when we started. There are a lot of players that weren’t committed to improving and taking their organization to the next level; a lot of them are gone. They’ve either been consolidated, bought out, gone out of business, etc. That’s never a fun thing, but it has made the industry stronger. We have people now who are very vested and very interested in taking us to the next level, and I think we’re going to see that.
However, the conversation of talent has to be the at the spearhead of this change. Your side of the world and our side of the world have to work together more. We’re not a straight manufacturing industry anymore; we are service providers. We’re only as good as the talent, technology, and service we’re able to bring to our clients to solve their problems. We don’t just have due dates, specs, and pricing anymore.
I think the future is bright. I’m excited about it. I like the challenge. I like the competition. It’d be great to hear more people having this conversation because it only makes us better. What’s amazing is that you’re creating the future right here at the lab. I think that’s pretty cool and you should take a lot of pride in the amazing job you’re doing here. I’m honored to be a part of it.
Thank you! I’m lucky to have such a great team of mentors at the lab as well as the support from the industry. The future is so bright, and I’m excited to be a small step in these kids’ future in the print industry.
If you want to get to know more about Cathy and the ASU Print & Imaging Lab, be sure to check out Cathy on LinkedIn as well as visit the lab’s website to check out the awesome things being done there. For you printers looking to start executing on your talent development strategies, this is definitely a great place to start. You can reach out to either of us if you’re interested in discussing more about how you can help bridge the gap between educators and our industry. The talent threat is real, and now is the time to do something about it.
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