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Feb 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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You can do it!

As a small commercial or quick printer, you can boost productivity, hike product quality, reduce employee turnover and employ content, highly motivated workers who have a stake in the company's future--all in one fell swoop.

Impossible, you say?

Not so, claim the experts. With effective employee training, all of the above are possible. "You'll prosper with productive employees, and well-trained workers are the most productive," asserts Eric Frank, marketing director at Heidelberg USA (Kennesaw, GA). Not only does instruction arm staff with technical skills, it also is the company's way of saying, "We'll take you into the future," thus keeping workers motivated and involved, adds Frank.

Indeed, "if you don't take care of your people [through training], you can't expect them to take care of your business," stresses Kaye Black, owner of Curry Printing (Hilton Head Island, SC).

"It's very clear to us," adds Kory Kogon, director of training for AlphaGraphics, Inc. corporate headquarters (Tucson, AZ). "In terms of profits, staff retention, etc., the most successful franchisees are those with prominent employee instruction programs; they're the cream of the crop. Franchisees with very little training in place don't fare well."

And yet, "most small commercial and quick printers talk a good game about training and education for their staff, but when it comes to making the investment, many don't do it," observes one industry expert. Why? A dearth of dollars and lack of hours are likely culprits, as are worries about well-trained employees jumping shop to ply their craft at competing print shops.

For today's crop of successful small shops, such fears pale in comparison to potential benefits of instruction. True, the most common training techniques are on-the-job instruction, according to Dan Witte, senior director of the Chicago-based National Assn. of Quick Printers (NAQP), in addition to manufacturer training (at least when shops invest in new equipment). But innovative shops have dreamed up a slew of unique, cost-effective methods. Indeed, one firm contracted a retired individual to train its workers. Another utilized the assets of a nearby printer to shore up its own staff skills. A third sponsored an employee retreat. Finally, several shops pooled their resources to hire one instructor to train all their employees.

While some of these programs focus on equipment operation, others highlight customer service, brainstorming and problem-solving skills, reflecting the importance of these abilities in today's print shops. Prosperous printers also recognize it is vital to assess employees' skills before initiating training, establish skill standards and provide training not only when new employees are hired and equipment purchased, but on an ongoing basis. They also know that measuring the results of instruction is a must for any quality program.

Quality programs are important due to the highly competitive, productivity driven atmosphere flourishing in today's small commercial and quick print shops. Instruction also is pivotal to prevent employee turnover while providing cross training, especially in small shops. After all, if an employee is unexpectedly absent, is another worker qualified to temporarily take his or her place?

In addition, the industry's "quick change artist" nature means technology is constantly advancing and staff, therefore, requires constant updates.

The industry is making progress--more printers understand the need for training. In fact, due, in part to customer demand, Heidelberg USA plans to expand its training offerings by 75 percent in 1998, according to Larry Kroll, the company's director of training and consulting.

AlphaGraphics franchisees, too, clamor for more instruction, especially digital courses (such as working with customer files), as well as CD-ROM and Internet services. "Since franchisees asked for additional training, we've made instruction more of a support service rather than a fee-based issue," relates Kogon.

The result? From September through November, AlphaGraphics' corporate headquarters trained nearly 300 franchisees in sales, customer service, digital services and other topics--a number that easily eclipsed last year's figures, claims Kogon.

But showing an interest in manufacturer or franchise training is a far cry from implementing in-house instruction. Establishing such programs may pose nary a challenge for large shops, which may have surplus dollars and hours to devote to training departments.

While establishing on-site training may be more complex for smaller printers, a handful of intrepid shops are doing just that.

Take George C. Lawrence III, president of Lawrence Printing Inc., an Atlanta sheet-fed firm. Knowing proper equipment operation is key, he hired a retired bindery professional to complete an approximately one-year training stint at the shop. This consultant not only trains the company's four bindery staff members, but also will hand-pick and train a bindery supervisor. "He'll try to duplicate himself in one year," relates Lawrence. "This supervisor not only will be a superior bindery professional, but also will be able to train others when the consultant leaves."

The consultant works full-time, introducing workers to the intricacies of cutting, folding, scoring, perforating--all the typical bindery functions. He doesn't conduct formal classes, but instead coaches bindery staff on-the-job, seeking to eliminate their weak points and perfect their skills. He also tackles quality control and some production work.

Advantages to hiring a retired person? "Due to the consultant's 30-plus years of experience, when he came on board we had instant quality control in the bindery," offers Gary Lawrence, vice president. Flexibility is another benefit. For instance, the consultant will remain at Lawrence Printing until a bindery supervisor is properly trained, whether that time period is eight or 14 months or longer.

"Staff members were excited that a trainer was being brought in with such a high skill level," relates Lawrence. "They also knew he wasn't hired to replace anyone, but simply to take their skills to the next level. The consultant represented an investment in our people--and they understood that."

Shops also can look to other printers for training opportunities. For instance, Curry Printing recently invested in its first two-color press. Although the shop will receive supplier instruction, Curry's press operator believed she could master the press more quickly by working side by side with an experienced operator.

That observation inspired Curry Printing's owner. "We are planning to send the press operator to another shop that owns the same two-color press. Our operator will 'shadow' an experienced operator for two days," relates Black. This tactic isn't an imposition on the experienced operator since the Curry employee doesn't require extensive training, "simply help in shortening the learning curve on a new piece of equipment," says the quick printer.

Two shops are candidates to provide training. Black met both through NAQP. The printers are located in Charlotte, NC--a four-hour drive from Curry--and produce the same type of work.

Black isn't worried about competitive issues. "If other shop owners meet your employees and know you have quality workers, those owners may want to hire staff away--that's one reason this training approach would not work on a large scale," she says. However, Black has close, long-standing relationships with the owners of the shops at which her operator could train. She recommends printers partner with other shops, working diligently to satisfy employee needs and make sure workers are content with their positions. Another tactic to secure technical instruction? Talk to Nelson Fuentes, owner of 14-employee Interprint, a four-color shop in Decatur, GA. One year ago, he partnered with Lynn Sherman, a press instructor from nearby DeKalb Technical Institute (Atlanta), to train his employees at no charge.

Indeed, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. every day for a month, Sherman trained three Interprint press operators utilizing the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF) Sheet-fed Press Operation program. It focuses on sheet-fed press operation, including feeder, delivery and register systems, as well as press makeready and production. "We set up a classroom in the pressroom," explains Sherman.

One hour of instruction was held on company time (from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., when the shop closed), but the other three hours were on the workers' own time. While the training wasn't mandatory, employees eagerly attended.

This arrangement was truly a partnership. "By training printing employees, we learn from them," explains Paul Davis, a prepress instructor at the DeKalb Institute. "We then can directly apply what we've learned to our classes that teach students skills applicable to the real world. Interacting with industry members also helps promote the school and fulfills the institute's "staff development" mandate for its instructors."

Indeed, small printers located near technical schools can tout their ability to make instructors privy to real-world printing problems in exchange for regularly scheduled classes or periodic seminars. For a listing of schools providing graphic arts education, printers can contact Leesburg, VA-based Vocational Industrial Clubs of America (VICA). This listing also is available in the NAQP membership directory.

Technical skills aren't the only things graphic arts employees must learn. In fact, some experts say they aren't even the most vital. "If you asked me to identify the most important training topic for my staff, I'd say communication--in a minute," stresses Black. "If all workers aren't focused on a single goal and speaking the same language, it doesn't matter how well they operate equipment. Thus, Black also trains employees on communication, as well as brainstorming, problem solving and customer service.

For instance, the firm hosted a weekend retreat for its 10 employees on a nearby island. While the meeting's main goal was to help Curry's staff "visualize their business, own the vision and be part of it," Black maintains that training issues were high on the agenda.

An outside facilitator, identified through NAQP, provided instruction on brainstorming and problem solving "to enhance the staff's ability to recognize opportunities and seize the right course of action in any given situation."

To improve communication skills, one activity required the staff to split into two teams and work together to create something out of paper clips, scraps of paper, etc. "Talking was prohibited," relates Black. "This activity, therefore, taughtus to communicate non-verbally and work together to reach a common goal."

But surely employees were not eager to spend their weekend in work-related activities. "Not at first," Black admits. "They already did good work and didn't realize how much they'd get out of the retreat." She adds that by the weekend's end, however, employees felt as though they were part of a team and had learned valuable new skills or perfected existing ones.

Extending Black's concepts, let's not forget customer service skills. "Printing is very much a service-oriented business," acknowledges Witte of NAQP. "Just as much is at stake in customer service as in production."

Terri Van Eenige, training coordinator for a Phoenix-based AlphaGraphics franchise, would agree. Since instruction provided by the AlphaGraphics corporate headquarters wasn't always convenient, the shop struck out on its own. In fact, it pooled its resources with three other franchise locations (with the same owner) to pay Van Eenige's salary. She trains workers in customer service and sales, among other subjects.

The four cooperating shops (all within a 12-mile radius) divide the cost of training as well as Van Eenige's time. She spends four hours each Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at one of the four firms, coaching workers on the job. The remainder of her time is spent in the training center at her home base AlphaGraphics site.

While training isn't required for AlphaGraphics employees, it's "highly, highly recommended," Van Eenige emphasizes. Instruction is conducted during and after working hours, and staff are paid or given time off for training held during evenings or weekends. In addition, classes generally are attended by four to 10 people.

Indeed, pooling their resources allows the four shops to provide high-quality training they might not otherwise be able to afford.

Finally, printers also opt for industry-produced training packages created by graphic arts associations. For approximately two years, Lawrence Printing has used the GATF Sheet-fed Operation program cited earlier. The firm's production manager, Keith Stallings, leads the instruction, which includes a supervisor's manual and employee training guides.

"The mandatory class meets once a week for 30 to 60 minutes," relates Stallings. "We cover topics spanning principles of lithography to press makeready and production, and every new press operator completes the program."

Employee reaction? "They enjoy it," Stallings answers. "Some of the information is review for experienced operators, but they always learn something new."

In addition, Alexandria, VA-based Society for Service Professionals in Printing (SSPP) provides a customer service training package, according to Witte. This instruction describes the printing process, working with prospects and dealing with complaints. "After finishing this study-based program, workers take a certification exam," says Witte.

"The bottom line is that training enhances workers' skill levels," sums up George Lawrence. "And anything that enhances employees enhances our company."

No matter what form of training you opt for, consider the following tips:

1. Assess employee's skills before initiating any training program. This will help focus on specific areas that need attention.

2. Be willing to invest money in training. Kaye Black of Curry Printing doesn't divulge the exact cost for an employee retreat but advises that, "firms budgeting for a similar activity should allocate approximately $2,500 for meals and lodging for 10 people for one weekend."

In 1997, Lawrence Printing spent $10,000 to $15,000 on training, but this year that number will skyrocket to approximately $60,000 due to fees associated with hiring a bindery consultant. "Training can be costly," notes George Lawrence, "but it's a short-term sacrifice and a long-term investment. Besides, it's far more costly to lose customers or redo jobs than it is to train employees."

3. Set standards for staff performance. The National Council for Skill Standards in Graphic Communications (Kennebunk, ME) hasoutlined skill standards for prepress, press, and binding, finishing and distribution operations. These standards, adds William H. Smith, managing director of the organization, are a list of competencies--what experts should know and be able to accomplish. The standards are available from GATF (Sewickley, PA).

4. Provide ongoing instruction. Most small commercial and quick print shops offer training only when new employees are hired or equipment is purchased. But "shops need some kind of organized, regular training, and that is within the reach of most any budget, regardless of company sizes," asserts Smith. Ongoing, periodic instruction will maintain employee's skill levels, as well as continually motivate employees.

5. Measure results of instruction. You'll have an easier time budgeting funds for future training if you can demonstrate results. For instance, did the amount of rework decrease after training? By how much? Did productivity increase?

Black's retreat, for example, netted greater productivity and improved problem solving skills among employees.