The future of the printing industry is rapidly approaching, and it's time to prepare for the evolution. To casual observers, the mere fact that there is a future for the printing business may seem off – but it's no mistake or joke. The types of products companies procure from the print sector have shifted noticeably in recent years, but there are still plenty of ways to forge connections between providers and clients in search of new and improved marketing materials. In fact, by combining their offerings with digitally infused outreach methods, printers can stay active even in these evolving times.

Next step: Increased training focus
One important element of the print market is preparing employees to solve the next generation of problems for their clients. Interestingly, this seems to be one of the areas with the greatest room for improvement. According to Printing Impressions contributor Erik Cagle, there are a few challenges facing print service provider workforces. Solving these may prove essential to ensuring print stays strong as overall market conditions shift.

  • Aging workforce: One of the most pressing issues is a lack of youth in print shops. Cagle quoted data from Printing Industries of America, which found that two-thirds of employees working with print equipment are 45 and older. Some of these workers are retiring and others are leaving the field. With new technology being added all the time, companies are searching for replacement employees outside of their own industries.
  • Classic pipeline drying up: The author also noted that some of the methods that could have provided well-prepared new employees include trade schools and labor unions. With less focus on printing as an industry, however, these channels may not be able to to provide the team members print shops need.

Time to train
So what's the answer? Cagle noted that the PIA study suggested that companies do their training in-house, teaching employees the trade. Counting on external sources for learning is no longer practical, so it's time to take in promising but raw candidates and turn them into subject matter experts. The author added that hardware manufacturers are not the answer to the dilemma: They don't have the ability to train a rising generation of workers with their solutions. Leaders at print providers will simply have to take the torch themselves.

Of course, the abilities imparted should not be narrow in focus. Cagle noted that when the next recession hits, printers will need employees with a wide variety of skills. Flexibility is absolutely necessary in such situations, even if printing never truly collapses as an industry – and the author does not believe it will. He added that gloomy outlooks on the field may have been slightly affected by the fact that CareerBuilder research also included newspaper printing, a difficult part of the industry.

Shipments a concern
The conditions print providers have to deal with are relatively hostile as of July, the latest month for which figures are available. WhatTheyThink's Joe Webb recently explained that, when adjusted for inflation, it was the softest month on record for shipment value in the U.S. This underline's Cagle's point that, while print may not be dying, diversifying roles and expanding abilities may be wise with volumes as low as they've been. The problematic 2016 figures follow a pattern similar to 2014 (2015 was friendlier to printers).

Expanding into and incorporating IT-based offerings and digital media integration could prove to be a lifeline for print companies. Webb noted that a greater migration into these channels may finally be happening. He opined that the election season, which might normally be a bastion for paper-based communications, may be going digital. These are trends to watch, as it's wise to stay on top of fluctuations in the industry. Companies that don't find a specialized niche may find themselves suffering when such dips in shipments occur.

Print in transition
The passing of the torch from the baby boomer generation to Generation X and millennials is well underway. With indications that the same effect has taken hold in print, it is important for print service providers to imagine themselves on the other side of the transition. What does a print shop look like in the 21st century? The answer is still up in the air, but one thing is for certain – there will be some changes relative to the past, and even today.

Companies that re-dedicate themselves to serving customers, finding ways to train employees for the next round of roles rather than just those that exist today, may find themselves better prepared than their inflexible peers. It should come as no surprise that in a transitional era, it is good to keep options open. As the workforce ages and individuals leave the print sector behind, leaders should be thinking about how not just to get the same production from the new wave of hires, but how to improve.