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Do you speak postpress?

Nov 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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How many languages are spoken in your postpress department? The reality is that many binderies are bilingual—in addition to English, it’s not unusual to find employees fluent in Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Hmong and several other languages. But as many postpress and bindery supervisors can attest, language barriers do exist and overcoming them isn’t easy.

‘Bindery is the poor stepchild’
“It was the early 1990s, when we found it extremely difficult to find bindery help, that we [had] a major influx of non-English speaking workers,” says Sue Hein, president of Rapid Bind, a 28-year-old midsize bindery in Portland, OR.

“We found ourselves with large groups of people, mostly Hispanic women, who became the core of our hand-work department,” she said. “Many of them came from agricultural backgrounds and were pleased to be working indoors in a climate controlled setting for only eight hours a day with benefits.”

Although a slowing economy in the early 2000s eased the labor shortage, the quest for good employees remains. “There still aren’t many people in the graphic arts industry following mom or dad into the print shop or bindery, and really, no one grows up dreaming of being a bindery worker,” notes Hein.

Checking with peers has proved equally fruitless. “While over the years many companies have shared their business strategies or wage and benefit packages with me when I called to ask about the challenges involved in a multicultural bindery, no one offered any suggestions or had anything to say,” says Hein. “The bindery is really the poor stepchild when it comes to industry resources.”

Few participate in free classes
At different times, Rapid Bind’s staff has included Vietnamese, Russian and Hispanic employees—the 38-person company currently has one Vietnamese and several Hispanic employees on board.

From the start, Hein brought in interpreters to explain the company’s policies, benefits package and other human resources items.

The company’s 401k provider sent a Spanish speaking representative to discuss the plan, but in Hein’s experience, few benefit providers offer Spanish or other language resources. Although Rapid Bind will pay for English instruction classes at local community colleges, few employees enroll in them. Castle Press (Pasadena, CA), a 74-year old commercial print shop, also reports a low response rate to its offer of free English classes. “Even the employees that did take the classes weren’t able to really learn the language well enough to use it during their shifts,” says Susan Kinney, owner and president.

Some printers and trade binderies report that employees rely on their English-speaking children to call in when a parent is sick or to ask work-related questions.

“While many [of the employees’] children speak English, it’s more difficult for their parents, perhaps because their educational base is limited,” says Kinney. “If they’ve only had an elementary education, for example, learning a foreign language is asking a lot.”

“I personally believe that if you’re going to live in this country, you need to learn English,” adds Kinney. “But that doesn’t mean we hold it against our employees, because we certainly don’t.”

Castle Press relies on a bilingual supervisor at the floor level to serve as a liaison between employees and management. Lee Wong, Castle’s bindery supervisor, is originally from Malaysia. She started out as a hand worker about 15 years ago and learned English on her own. Wong also has picked up enough Spanish to help keep production running smoothly.

Quantum Color Graphics (Morton Grove, IL), a privately-owned commercial printer, relies on a bilingual Hispanic supervisor. Nonetheless, communication isn’t always perfect.

“Sometimes a Spanish-speaking employee will say he or she understands the directions we’ve given them, but then we come back a while later and find they aren’t doing the job correctly,” said Joe Krajewski, Quantum Color Graphics’ finishing manager. “That can be really frustrating and [leads to] spoilage. While we can’t put a dollar amount on it, time is money. And when the machine isn’t running, we’re not as productive.”

Judy Hertsgaard, Quantum’s manager of fulfillment and distribution, faces another challenge: temporary workers who don’t speak English. Many times, showing someone visually how a job should be done works, but some subtleties defy these demonstrations.

“It’s hard sometimes to tell them by showing,” explains Hertsgaard. “Cutters need to know how to cut the material in order to bind it, and we need people who know how to deal with folds in a brochure.”

Hard work overcomes many obstacles
In many cases, lack of language and literacy skills will prevent employees from advancing their careers, but some bindery and print shop owners have found that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

One of Castle Press’ lead press operators, for example, started out as a bindery helper. “This man basically was doing maintenance around the shop,” Kinney says. “He never took a class and still speaks limited English, although he’s improved a great deal, but he was a good worker from the start and he had what it took to work his way up to becoming a lead operator.”

“One of our biggest challenges was [deciding if he should do] customer OKs,” adds Kinney. “We had internal arguments about this, but ultimately we decided he would do it, and he’s done a great job.”

Of course, excellent language skills are no guarantee an employee will thrive in the bindery. Castle Press cross-trains all employees and has found that regardless of language skills, people have different learning styles. Some thrive with a combination of visual and verbal directions, while others prefer to read a manual.

“We can tell in a few hours whether someone has the manual dexterity to handle repetitive motions or has the ability to learn, and that transcends all cultures and languages,” says Hein. Beyond basic communication challenges, managing a multicultural operation also requires patience and understanding. “It’s one thing when the employees argue about whether rock and roll or Spanish music will be played on the radio, but when someone on our staff has never had a bank account before and we’re trying to help him understand his 401k, well, that’s a much larger issue,” says Hein.

Time-off policies are another potential stumbling block. Hein notes that employees who are accustomed to doing seasonal work must transition to a year-round outlook—unlike seasonal jobs, bindery jobs don’t have several months of down time. And, while it’s possible to accommodate employees’ requests for extended time off, typically any time taken beyond vacation or FMLA provisions will put an employee’s job at risk. If an employee needs an extra week of vacation to visit family in another country, most employees will try to work something out, but few can hold jobs open for employees who will be absent for months at a time.

Language barriers can extend to outside vendors as well, as Kinney found when Castle Press outsourced a bindery job. “The person running the bindery equipment didn’t speak English, so we couldn’t talk to him,” she recalls. “It was a real problem and it wasn’t pleasant.”

C&R Bindery: a classic success story
C&R Bindery (Dallas) is named after its founding partners: Hung Chan and Tony Romaniello. At first glance, the two couldn’t be more different: Chan, C&R’s president, immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1980, while Romaniello, the company’s vice president, is a native Philadelphian. “We’re like the ‘Odd Couple,’” says Romaniello, who claims the Oscar Madison role to Chan’s Felix Unger. “I do the sales and estimating while Hung oversees the financial and manufacturing side.”

The two met in 1995 when Romaniello, an experienced bookbinder, joined Ellis Bindery as its GM. Chan, the night supervisor, had joined Ellis 15 years earlier as a bindery helper. “I came to the U.S. with nothing,” recalls Chan. “I was so poor that the case worker who eventually helped me find a job felt sorry for me and gave me a dollar.”

As the oldest son, Hung took responsibility for supporting his family while also earning two associate degrees in electronics and air conditioning.

Romaniello, the son of Italian immigrants, found he had much in common with Chan. “We come from the same type of family backgrounds,” he says. “We hit it off right away.”

After Ellis Bindery changed hands (it has since merged with another company), Hung proposed that he and Romaniello go into business together. “We [got] a Small Business Administration loan and didn’t take salaries for about 18 months,” says Romaniello. “It was a long, uphill climb.”

Romaniello attributes C&R’s success to its emphasis on service and quality: “We don’t take work that we can’t do.”

Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist who regularly covers the entertainment and printing industries. Contact her at