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Good staff - gaining, training and retaining

By James Cryer 

Talk given by James Cryer at the 70th Junior Printing Annual General Meeting.

I would like to thank Franca for the opportunity to spread my propaganda over such young and impressionable minds. By the way if any of you have sent in resumes in the last week or so – no eye contact, please.

There’s nothing new under the Sun – but there are NEW ways of looking at some things that, because of our busy daily lives, we can take for granted. The purpose of this talk is to take some familiar things – such as the job interview – and look at them in a new light.


  • That our industry mindset is traditionally conservative and reluctant to change
  • We have to re-think our traditional approach to recruitment and choose people more on their attitude, rather than “how long they’ve been in the trade”
  • We’re now being challenged by a more aggressive mindset brought about by the “digital revolution”
  • Employers now have to “compete” for good staff – and prove they are an “employer of choice” – something they’ve not had to do before
  • Also, there is a greater emphasis on keeping good staff – various ways are discussed
  • What are the issues, in job seeking, that are important to candidates?
  • The job interview – why it’s an unequal contest
  • The “induction” phase – and why it’s also the danger zone for many companies
  • Appointing a sales rep – avoiding the pitfalls
  • People – Our most Important – or Most Overlooked Asset?

I’d like to propose some challenges to your thinking, as you and I belong to an industry that’s enjoyed over 400 years of virtual monopoly, during which time we’ve all been lulled into a false sense of security. A bit like a predator with no natural enemies, we’ve become a little unused to change, a little hostile to threats, and a bit reluctant to change from our entrenched ways.

Rightly or wrongly, the apprenticeship system – which has been the central plank of craft-based industries (such as the printing and building industries), tends to perpetuate this maintenance of the “status quo”, by denying the existence of alternate “technologies” and reinforcing a belief in the practices of the past.

 In fairness, this system has served our industry well for several centuries: it has built a strong, highly-trained breed of specialists – but over-specialisation can contain the seeds of its own destruction.

Some of us can remember the trauma our industry went through when it changed (“transitioned”) from letterpress to offset - or - after that, from hot metal to electronic pre-press within the major newspapers – or – to a lesser extent when we’ve all had to move from film to CTP.

I see the next “threat” (or “mixed blessing”) as being the digital revolution that is sweeping over us all. But I’m not talking about the technological revolution that digital is bringing – I’m referring to something more subtle. I’m talking about the change in “mindset” which the “digital brigade” is bringing to our industry.


If we peer through the techno smoke-and-mirrors that can blind us – the real gift which digital brings to our industry is a new attitude. It’s a “can do” approach that whatever the customer wants we can deliver. Whenever he wants it. In whatever form, shape and size he wants.

No more submitting a quote and hoping. No more “one-size-fits-all” approach – ie, “do it our way or not at all!” The digital brigade goes where no print rep has gone before. They tell the customer how they can utilise or adapt new print applications to their (the customer’s) benefit.

They aren’t quibbling over an existing-size pie – they’re out there expanding the pie.

Because they’re inventing new solutions as they go – and almost everyday we read about new innovations in variable data, ink-jet technology, etc - they (the “digital brigade”) don’t know the meaning of the words “sorry, we can’t do that”. It’s an attitudinal thing – they are there to give the customer whatever they want. They are not prisoners of an “offset-only” staightjacket – reinforced by what we may have been told what was possible (or not possible), whenever we did our apprenticeships.

What has all this got to do with recruitment, I hear you ask? Again, it’s a “mindset” shift we’re talking about.

For generations, we’ve had the luxury of hanging up a shingle, which said (among other things) - “Do not apply …

...If you are a female
...If you are over 50
...If you haven’t had “x” number of years as a trade-qualified whatever, and occasionally …
...If you are a sole-parent and have a young child.


Our digital brethren aren’t encumbered by these artificial restrictions. Their criteria is – can you do the job? It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done a 4-year apprenticeship, or that you haven’t operated a particular press before – or, that you haven’t even been in the printing industry before!

 It’s like the “old money/new money” model. Nobody cares which school you may have gone to. The only issue is: can you do the job?

The point is: we as an industry have tended to be a bit too “equipment obsessed”, without paying adequate attention to staff motivation and retention. We’ve been able to get away with this, while ever there was a plentiful supply of bodies. Now that we’re experiencing a skills shortage we may have to be more creative in sourcing talent. And it can often be right under our nose – in the form of our own staff, who often have “hidden” capabilities – not always apparent, but which can be readily re-deployed, or re-applied.

For example: we’re all searching for sales reps. Have you considered the best applicant may be that switched-on young printer down in your factory - or the enthusiastic customer service rep on your own staff. (Just think of the recruitment fees you’ll save!)

How many of us are guilty of using that tired old cliché “Our people are our best asset” – and then we either don’t promote them from within (when we should), or we re-trench them too readily (when we shouldn’t).

Sadly, in my role, I see too many instances of neglect by bosses, of their staff. You wouldn’t treat a printing press that way!

Lack of available candidates however is forcing a new regime upon us – one that requires us to value our staff more highly.

This is not rocket science. I estimate half the candidates who contact me, would NOT do so if their boss (or, I should say management, generally) did any or all of the following –

  • showed occasional recognition or appreciation,
  • encouraged or permitted more involvement in decision-making,
  • informed their staff about company issues,
  • stuck to promises or undertakings made, or …
  • simply smiled more often, and said “thankyou” for a job well done.

The other paradigm shift (sorry!) is that, due to the scarcity of talent, we as employers NOW have to compete in the market for candidates. This is a reversal of the way things have worked ever since the Industrial Revolution – when workers used to have to queue up, to be either hired or fired!

These days however, the shoe is on the other foot. It’s the employ-ERS who have to “queue up” to bid for the right candidate. And they don’t like it. They’re not used to having to explain why their company is a “good employer” – they’ve never had to do it before!

However – I believe that in the long term, it’s a healthy process for any company to go through, and to prepare a list, headed “Why would anyone want to work for me?”

If I was to state what I feel is the single most important message to take away from this discussion, it is the value of undertaking a self-audit of why you, or your company, may be considered an employer of choice.

NOT a supplier of choice, or the lowest-cost producer, or the highest-quality printer (with apologies to the NPA Committee) – but the EMPLOYER of choice! And I don’t mean just because you pay above-award wages!

In fact wages or salary is only part of the equation in attracting candidates. In fact, “good” employers can avoid the trap of competing on price (i.e., wages or salary package) by offering NON-financial benefits as part of the total package. The bush-telegraph is very efficient at sending signals about who are the “good” and “bad” companies to work for. Ironically, it’s often the “bad” employers (i.e., those who have a record of high staff-turnover) who have to offer the highest wages to attract candidates!

So what are the issues that are important to job applicants? They include –

  • inclusiveness in decision-making,
  • promotion from within (that way you get virtually get rid of recruiters!),
  • giving praise where and when due,
  • sensitivity to employees’ genuine needs (eg, occasional leave for personal reasons),
  • job-rotation and/or job-sharing,
  • flexibility in working hours to suit genuine needs,
  • some form of career-planning for selected employees, which may include sending them on various courses … AND …,
  • ... for the very brave amongst employers, some form of profit sharing.

The list could go on – but you get the message. Let me go back for a moment - and ask - how many of YOUR companies offer some or any of the above?


Just let’s pause for a moment, and think about the job interview. It’s been very cleverly designed to be an un-equal contest. You (as the boss) are allowed under the rules of the game, to find out everything (politically correct or otherwise) about the candidate - who in turn, is denied just about every possibility of finding out anything meaningful, about his or her future employer. The interview is often held in a sterile “interview room”; they may or may not be taken on a plant tour – and they probably will NOT be introduced to their co-workers – the very people with whom they’re expected to get on with!

One of these days - in my dreams - a “job interview” will consist of allowing the candidate to ask as many questions of the company as they like – AND – being allowed to wander around the factory or office, for an hour or so, asking any of the existing employees what it’s like to work for such-and-such a company.

Again, let me ask – how many of your companies would be game to do that? Why not? You DO let your best clients come in for press-checks!


Assume for the moment, however, that we’ve captured the perfect candidate. You may not realise that you are now entering the most hazardous phase of the recruitment process – the INDUCTION. This is the phase where even the most well-intentioned employers can come unstuck, in terms of cementing-in the loyalty and commitment of the new-comer.

You have entered the “danger zone” – that critical period (which could be days, weeks or even months) after the candidate starts. This is the “make or break” phase where you’re likely to alienate the new employee - or - establish an enduring sense of belonging, loyalty and commitment. In our relentless pursuit of technical excellence, it is easy to overlook one small detail: the well-being, morale and on-going motivation of the troops themselves.

Consider for a moment, the time when you may have joined a club or organization and how easy it was to be left like a shag on a rock, not introduced or made to feel welcome.

Companies are nothing more, or less, than tribal organizations, with all the attendant admission gates - or barriers to entry - and the newcomer can be very quickly turned on, or off, during those first formative days.

In my view, here are some things, which may help to reinforce a sense of belonging and commitment in a new employee –

  • take them on a tour, including the office if it’s a factory role – and v v – and point out important features of the building, parking, etc (don’t park in the boss’ spot),
  • introduce them to their surrounding colleagues, and any other key staff or supervisors - preferably on a first-name basis,
  • appoint a mentor they can turn to for any questions they may have (preferably this should be an equal-ranking colleague – not a person perceived as another manager),
  • give them a handout on the company, its history, products, etc and any other promotional material. Don’t laugh. You’d be surprised how many companies produce an expensive glossy brochure telling their clients how wonderful they are – and then forget to give one to their own staff!
  • put a bunch of flowers on the desk to welcome them. I’m told this can work well with the girls, too!
  • Introduce them to the MD - if he’s friendly! You may laugh at this, but I know of one case where a printer worked for 6 years with a company, and had still not met the MD. (You may argue that’s a good thing – I know it’s debatable.) However, the impact on a new candidate having an informal cup of coffee with the boss can be extremely beneficial in securing that person’s loyalty.
  • Finally, have an informal review after an agreed-upon period, to ensure that any promises made (including “little things” like a wage review) have been fully implemented. This can also be a two-way discussion, to get valuable feedback on any areas the company may be a little deficient in, in terms of its treatment of its new employees.

You can see from these points, that they are all relatively “low-cost” actions. No-one is expecting you to spend vast amounts of money – as you do when you rush out and buy a new press!


There is one “special case” that I’m prepared to concede is a difficult one and often fraught with hazards – frequently resulting in tears, on both sides. And that is, employing a new sales rep. This is a situation where there is almost NO predictor of success. Dead dogs can fly like eagles – and stars can sink like stones.

Usually, if the rep doesn’t succeed, he or she gets the blame. Just occasionally, however, it may be due to a poor induction into the company (see above), or inadequate support - or unrealistic expectations - or all of the above. One day – in my dreams – I’ll hear a boss admit “The real reason so-and-so failed was because we failed to provide them with adequate support and back-up”. All I can say is, putting on a new sales rep can be one of the most hazardous experiences – for both parties.

We’ve all heard the joke about the manager who flings the new rep a phone book and a set of car keys – that WAS the motivational talk! If the rep is lucky, he’ll get a set of dog-eared, out-of-date customer record cards, as well. I am being slightly facetious – but you get the message.

My only advice, for what it’s worth, is –

  • go for personal qualities (ie, someone you feel comfortable with), NOT because they claim they can bring a huge “client base”,
  • pay them a reasonable salary from “day one” – don’t be tempted by the old “low base/high commission” formula – it only attracts undesirables!
  • allow them about TWICE as long to ramp-up as you would really like,
  • work WITH them - don’t just hand them the car keys (see above), AND make sure you give them an up-to-date client list - and appropriate promotional material,
  • THEN … take a deep breath, and hope like crazy it’ll all work out!

The other option is to appoint one of your own staff, who knows the company, knows its products – and presumably because you took my advice on how to induct them when they joined - they are highly motivated to succeed (with a little on-going help from you!)

The bottom-line is – you can NEVER stop “managing” your staff – if you want to keep them. There you have it – all the secrets you need to know - about a successful staff management and retention program.

W. James Cryer, November, 2006