From Recruitment to Retention: Mastering Labor Shortages in the Printing Industry

It’s no secret that the printing industry continues to face an unprecedented labor crisis, akin to the magnitude of a great natural disaster. A severe shortage of qualified candidates, combined with the pandemic’s “Great Resignation” has left printers in a state of turmoil, struggling to find and retain skilled staff.

This crisis has only been made worse by the withdrawal of women from the print workforce, the ongoing retirement of the Baby Boomer generation, and a lack of interest from younger workers, creating a perfect storm of labor challenges.

In the midst of chaos, there is always opportunity. With our collective 250+ years of printing experience here at Western Trade Printing, we’ve learned several effective, sometimes unusual ways to attract, hire, and keep the best candidates. For example, our unique, “upside down” interview process gets us candidates who genuinely want to work for us, and who stay for many years.

We’ll cover these recruitment solutions in detail below. But first, a short overview of the print industry labor shortage here in California and the US.

The Labor Shortage Perspective in California and the US

Currently there are over 10 million open jobs in the United States, with 911,000 of those open jobs in California alone, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics latest report. Although California job openings have declined somewhat over the past year, there are only 0.9 unemployed people per job opening. (And from an employer’s perspective that’s good…the national average is 0.6 people per opening.)

unemployed persons per job opening US

In other words, no matter where you are, there are not enough people to fill all open jobs, putting printers in desperate need of qualified candidates to keep their operations running smoothly.

The shortage of skilled staff not only hurts productivity but also puts immense pressure on existing employees, leading to burnout and decreased morale.

Causes and Effects of Print Industry Labor Shortages

labor shortages in the printing industry

The labor shortages in the commercial printing industry can be attributed to various factors and trends.

Changing Demographics

One of the causes of labor shortages is changing demographics. The Baby Boomer generation, which makes up a significant portion of the current workforce, is reaching retirement age. The pandemic also influenced more of them to retire early or leave the industry altogether. This resulted in many experienced workers leaving the industry, creating a gap in skilled labor and in people available to train the next generation.

Additionally, there has been a decline in younger workers entering the printing industry over the past 20 years. High school and post-secondary print programs have seen a decrease in enrollment, leading to a shortage of skilled new talent.

Currently, the average age of workers in the printing industry is 48, highlighting the need for new talent to enter the field.

Lack of Training Programs

Another contributing factor to the labor shortages is the lack of training programs. Prior to the pandemic, many training programs in the printing industry were downsized or eliminated. This resulted in a shortage of qualified operators as experienced workers age out or leave the industry. The lack of training programs makes it difficult for commercial printers to find and hire individuals with the necessary skills and knowledge.

To address this issue, some companies are turning to apprenticeship programs to train and educate younger workers in the printing industry. These programs provide hands-on training and help bridge the skills gap, attracting new talent to the industry.

Ways to Attract and Hire Qualified Candidates – Labor Shortage Solutions

There are several tactics that can be used to attract good potential candidates to your printing business.

Be Aggressively Proactive

Years ago, it might have been OK to post an ad, wait for applications, and run through a bunch of interviews before settling on a candidate. That no longer works. Employees have more options than ever.

To get the best candidates today, at Western Trade Printing we found that we must aggressively search for them, even if they are not submitting applications.

We’ll go through resumes on sites like the VMA Job Center or ZipRecruiter. For our entry-level jobs, we’ll look for candidates who have done manual labor outdoors in the heat. It tells us they don’t mind working. Plus, they’re more likely to appreciate working inside with our air conditioning and good benefits.

A Better Interview Process

Years ago, in my new role as President and General Manager of WTP, I faced the problem of new employees leaving as soon as they saw a “better” opportunity. The problem was they didn’t enjoy the manual labor involved in printing.

To prevent this, I decided to ask candidates to come in and interview us. I schedule an hour for them to ask questions, then let them follow employees on the shop floor to get a true sense of the printing environment and the nature of the job.

This way, they’d pre-screen themselves for the job. It weeded out candidates who didn’t care for manual labor or any other aspect of a job. On the other hand, if the job appealed to them and they wanted to explore more, that signaled to me they were likely a good fit for the job.


One effective recruitment method is employee referrals, where current employees recommend qualified individuals from their social circles for open positions. This not only helps in finding candidates who are already familiar with the industry and its requirements, but also creates a sense of trust as potential candidates are referred by someone from within the organization.

Job Fairs and Open Houses

Another strategy is to participate in job fairs whether they are targeted towards the printing industry or to a broad range of industries. These events are an opportunity to showcase the company’s culture, work environment, and career growth opportunities to a pool of potential candidates who have a genuine interest in finding a career path.

Company Culture

The culture at Western Trade Printing is one of its key selling points for employees. I’m proud that collectively, my staff knows much more about this business than I do. This creates a culture of autonomy in which every employee is trusted to manage their own performance.

We also give employees opportunities to use their experience, to contribute ideas, and to make decisions. Of course, trainees still need guidance which we provide with internal training.

Culture is a broad term that incorporates a lot of other items we talk about in this article. This includes competitive compensation packages, flexible work arrangements, opportunities for career growth, and work-life balance.

Create Apprenticeship Programs

Apprenticeships may involve partnering with local educational institutions to support trade and higher-ed programs that train skilled workers specifically for the printing industry. Moreover, offering apprenticeship programs can attract younger workers who are eager to learn and gain hands-on experience.

The Visual Media Alliance (VMA,) for example, offers summertime Graphic Arts Student Internships. They partner with Cal Poly to coordinate internships with qualified graphic arts students and VMA members in print, packaging, and label businesses as well as creative agencies.

Here at WTP we found its important to not pass over new candidates who need guidance or training. That’s why we are always ready to train from within.

My own experience is a good example. I started here in 2005 as a pre-press manager, so I count myself as proof of the ground-floor opportunities available to willing, conscientious employees.

Some other examples of the benefits of internal training are two of my full-time press operators who started here loading paper. Today they earn top wages as press operators. Another fellow started as a minimum wage bindery helper. After an injury sidelined him physically, we put his computer skills to use. Today, he’s my right-hand man in the office, handling order writing, estimating, and scheduling.

Update Technology

It is also important for commercial printers to modernize their technology and equipment to align with the expectations of younger generations and demonstrate their commitment to innovation. By investing in automation and upgrading equipment, printers not only streamline their operations but also appeal to tech-savvy individuals who are looking for opportunities in a digitally-driven world.


Networking events offer an excellent platform for employers to connect with professionals already established in the field of printing or related industries. Building relationships at such events can lead to partnerships or collaborations that help attract experienced individuals who may be seeking new opportunities.

Social Media Recruitment

Social media recruitment has emerged as an effective tool for attracting talent in various industries, including printing. Platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter let companies promote their brand and engage with potential candidates directly.

Sharing success stories, showcasing company culture through visuals or videos, and actively participating in discussions related to the printing industry on these platforms can stir up interest among job candidates.

Job Boards

In addition to employee referrals and job fairs, online job boards play a role in attracting qualified candidates. These platforms allow employers to reach a wider audience and provide detailed information about the available positions. By utilizing keywords related to specific skills or experience required for the printing industry, employers can ensure that their job postings appear prominently when potential candidates search for relevant opportunities. They can also provide a wider reach, possibly reaching candidates who are willing to relocate for a good position.

But as I mentioned earlier, be proactive. Search for and reach out to good prospective candidates.

Ways to Retain Employees

Naturally, once you’ve put all that effort into getting good staff, you’ll want to keep them.

This means that a plan for employee satisfaction, productivity, and engagement needs to be in place. It might look something like this:


Retention Tactics


Employee Engagement

Create a work environment that fosters loyalty and emotional commitment

Career Development

Offer opportunities for professional growth and advancement

Work-Life Balance

Maintain a healthy balance between personal life and work commitments

Performance Evaluation

Regularly assess employee performance to provide feedback and recognition

Compensation and Benefits

Provide competitive salaries, incentives, and benefits packages


Employee Engagement

Employee engagement refers to the level of emotional commitment an employee has towards their work and organization. Put a much simpler way—how do employees feel about Monday mornings on a Sunday night?

That’s their level of engagement.

By actively engaging employees, organizations can create a positive work environment that fosters loyalty and productivity.

Engaged employees are more likely to take ownership of their work, seek opportunities for growth, and contribute innovative ideas that drive organizational success.

Career Development

Career-oriented employees want career development opportunities. Paths for advancement and professional growth not only motivates them but also increases their commitment to the organization.

As mentioned earlier in the article, we have several key employees who started out as minimum wage help and took advantage of career opportunities.

Career development can include training programs, mentorship opportunities, or tuition reimbursement for further education. Additionally, maintaining a healthy work-life balance prevents burnout and ensures employee satisfaction. Companies can promote this with flexible working hours or remote work options.

Work-Life Balance

Family matters to everyone.

Everyone needs to fulfill personal and family obligations outside of work while still meeting job requirements.

An inability to address family or personal issues means your new hire is on the fast track to burnout.

When an employee here at WTP is dealing with the loss of a family member or pet or some other pressing personal issue, they’re given the time they need to deal with that.

And they don’t abuse this privilege either. When we have the right-fit employee, they want to work here and perform to the best of their ability.

This flexibility in work-life balance and culture of autonomy resulted in many of our employees staying with us for over a decade. Retention is not an issue.

Performance Evaluation and Assessment

Expectations need to be set and monitored. It doesn’t have to be complicated. By regularly monitoring performance metrics such as productivity levels or quality standards achieved by each employee, organizations can identify top performers as well as individuals who may need additional support or training.

Skill assessment is another vital component of building a skilled workforce. Conducting regular assessments allows organizations to identify any gaps in employee knowledge or skills and address them through targeted training initiatives. This process ensures that employees are continually improving their skill sets and staying current with industry trends. Skill assessments also help companies identify high-potential employees who may be suitable for career advancement opportunities within the organization.

Compensation and Benefits

Competitive wages and benefits are always important, with benefits often being the more compelling of the two. According to a Robert Half survey, the top benefits employees want post-pandemic are:

  1. Health care
  2.  Paid leaves
  3. Retirement plans
  4. Remote work and flexible schedules

The benefits your company offers are limited only by your imagination, budget, and your hiring demographic. For example, some companies offer child-care, wellness programs, disability and life insurance, or more time off. The addition of benefits and perks can often be a bigger motivator than salary.

Hiring Alternative: Outsourcing to a Trade Printer

Building a skilled and productive workforce is a requirement for printing business success. However, even with the best recruitment and training strategies in place, there may still be times when additional resources are needed to meet production demands. This is where outsourcing to a trade printer can serve as a valuable backup solution.

Outsourcing to a trade (wholesale) printer is a cost-effective way to meet short-term or unexpected increases in demand. By partnering with an experienced trade shop like Western Trade Printing, businesses can access our specialized equipment and wide-ranging expertise without having to invest in expensive machinery or hire additional staff.

This means companies can manage their production capacity with efficiency and grow without any new fixed or capital costs. It also lets companies focus on their core competencies without struggling with overwhelming recruitment challenges.

A good trade partnership with WTP can also mitigate production problems when a company is short-staffed due to vacation, sick leave, or other unexpected employee issues.

Conclusion – Labor Shortages in the Printing Industry

The printing industry faces a unique set of staffing challenges from recruitment to retention. To overcome these challenges and build a skilled and productive workforce, companies need to understand the realities of the staffing landscape and develop proactive recruitment and retention strategies.

It requires attracting qualified candidates through growth opportunities and competitive compensation packages. It requires a positive work environment that values open communication, collaboration, and recognition. It also involves building a skilled workforce through apprenticeship and continuous learning programs. Finally, outsourcing to trade printers can provide support during peak periods or staffing shortages.

To talk about how we can help with your labor shortage issues, or other print production problems, call me at 559-251-8595 ext. 411. Take advantage of our 250+ years of collective and dedicated print wisdom and experience!

Frequently Asked Questions – Print Industry Labor Shortages

How has the COVID-19 pandemic specifically impacted the labor challenges faced by commercial printers?

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened labor challenges for commercial printers. The impact of remote work and a shift in job preferences have made it difficult to fill positions and retain qualified staff in the industry.

What are some specific strategies that commercial printers can implement to attract younger workers to the industry?

To attract younger workers to the commercial printing industry, printers can implement strategies such as offering competitive wages, promoting career growth opportunities, providing a positive company culture, and embracing modern technology. Retention strategies include recognizing employee achievements and offering special benefits.

How have apprenticeship programs been effective in addressing the shortage of qualified operators in the printing industry?

Although apprenticeship programs in the printing industry have been likened to a beacon of hope, the jury is still out. Heidelberg has been pushing printing apprentice trainingin the US for years. Yet they find it more difficult to find and retain talent for the long term.

What are some examples of innovative recruitment strategies that commercial printers have implemented to overcome labor shortages?

Innovative recruitment strategies include targeted social media campaigns, partnering with trade schools, offering apprenticeship programs, and providing flexible work arrangements to attract younger workers. Severe labor challenges in specific regions have prompted companies to offer higher wages and relocation incentives.

What are the current trends in the printing industry that affect staffing?

The printing industry is experiencing significant shifts due to technological advancements, such as the rise of digital printing. Sustainability initiatives are also gaining prominence, while automation and robotics are reshaping staffing needs. Additionally, there is a growing demand for multi-skilled workers.

How can employers ensure they attract and hire candidates with the necessary skills and experience?

To attract and hire candidates with the necessary skills and experience, employers can utilize skill assessments, targeted job postings, employee referrals, professional networking, and training programs. These strategies ensure a comprehensive approach to finding qualified individuals for their organization.