Recovery from the recession has been something of a rollercoaster ride and with talk of a possible triple dip recession we are not out of the woods yet. We should be careful about the media reports however; as by the time figures are reported they are already history and there is a tendency for them to drag people’s perceptions backwards rather than looking at the present situation and better still the future.
While there can be no doubt that the market remains tough the feedback that we are getting from clients is definitely positive. Some people say that the print and packaging industries are bellwether sectors, often the first into and out of recession. I am not convinced this is entirely accurate; it is clear that many packaging companies weathered the recession comparatively well and many in the printing industry saw business pick up some time ago. Of course for many the recovery still feels rather fragile and so the economic discipline gained in the depths of the recession remains.
Across print production departments if we consider jobs such as repro, pre make-ready, press minders and print finishers; be they guillotine folder, gluer or bindery operators, staffing levels are pretty much consistently down on pre-recession levels. Retirees or leavers were not replaced and, of course for many there were redundancies. Yes there are plenty of print companies that are still struggling and only a bad debt or so away from going bust, but it is, without doubt, a leaner sector.
Particularly in print, i.e. press minders, and print finishing, the departments are run with a minimum of staff; with cover for absence being provided by overtime and or temporary workers. Make no mistake: temporary workers in the form of printing press minders and print finishers are not cheap labour. The printing and print finishing operators we supply on temporary contracting jobs are highly skilled and very versatile; they have to be to move from one employer and their equipment to the next. Employers expect a temporary contractor to walk into a job and start work right away with minimal instruction. To have any chance of doing this they have to be very competent, typically across a wide range of equipment, adaptable, flexible and have the kind of interpersonal skills and attitude which allows them to slot into the existing team easily.
This kind of person does not come cheap. The advantage of these people is that they can usually cover a multitude of equipment and positions. Quite often we have a temporary print finisher on assignment where the employer uses them as a kind of “super-sub”. Over the course of the assignment or even within a week or day they will be moved around across different machines depending on where the demand arises. This kind of flexibility and responsiveness is highly prized by print companies and allows them to win and deliver orders with very short lead-times.
Clearly this flexibility is valuable but it also carries a premium in terms of cost; so once the demand becomes routine employers clearly need to invest in permanent staff. Yes this may mean paying for surplus manpower some of the time but as with the temps a multi-skilled operator can provide the cover to absence and deal with peak demand. Another benefit that we have seen some print employers taking advantage of is using the additional person to free up other staff so that they in turn can cross train across other machines. The printers we have seen using this approach have reported increased motivation and improved productivity that comes from strength in depth.
The key message, whatever is happening with the economy is that those who establish and maintain flexible manning through the use of multi-skilled operators and temps, appear to be the most successful.
Mike Gilligan is managing consultant at Mercury Search and Selection, a specialist in technical and production roles across temporary and permanent jobs. Visit www.mercurysearch.com