Yet another worker’s shortage crisis… (yawn)

by admin on September 11, 2008

Okay, so I really like Printceo blog and I think it's the best, most well-funded on-line media group that focuses on printing and prepress. But I was wondering when they would take the "looming worker's shortage" bait and they did that yesterday.

They are not the first to do so, and probably not the last. Pardon me for taking some time to explain my cynicism. I have worked in the general IT sector for the last 4 years and every time I bump into a recruiter (which I try to do as infrequently as possible) I get a lecture on the "looming skills shortage."  When I was a project manager at Creo, the developer shortage reached critical mass about... hmmm.... 7 years ago. My wife works at Canada Post as a letter carrier and for the last five years, they have been preaching sermons on the "looming letter carrier" shortage. So why the occasional media meme saying "there's gonna be nobody to do the work in five years time?" Let me give you my opinion on that.

Well, first off, if you think there are fewer people in the printing industry, you're right. Is there a shortage of people to do the work? Well, I don't know about your neck of the woods, but with regard to wages here in Vancouver for pressmen, they haven't gone up in 18 years. I mean, the union wage for a pressman is about $28 an hour in 2008, and when I started in prepress back in 1991, it was ... maybe $27.50. So if there is a shortage of people to do the job, do you think maybe there would some wage inflation? Maybe just a little tiny bit?

In that time, wages for prepress have certainly gone up. I would say that back in the early nineties, a sys admin or chief prepress specialist would be making under $20, and now an experienced one can make more than $20 easily. However, the skill set for the job has mulitplied, and the productivity boost in prepress in the last 15 years has been astronomical. I mean, when I worked at a service bureau in 1994-5, getting one hundred pages of film per operator was considered a good productive day. Now a operator can easily output one hundred plates a day with way less stress and effort.

Okay, so where does the buzz come with regard to shortage of workers? I can offer 3 explanations:

1. Where are all the young people? Definitely, when I started out, desktop publishing and electronic prepress were hot. Then the internet and web design came along in the late 1990's. Now if you want to find where all the clever young twentysomethings have gone, check out affiliate marketing and the google economy. Nobody evens wants to code anymore because why do that if somebody in India will code for 1/4 your wage? So the "old" industries (like printing and banking is another one) wonders why they can't get young people in for a startin' starvin' wage.

2. The tech skills myth. Okay, this problem has been around for years, it's a running joke in the IT industry. Employer needs a tech, calls in HR. They make a list of applications in the shop that they need somebody to maintain/operate. Then they ask only for people who have, I dunno, five years experience in every frickin' application in the shop. Problem is, some of those applications have maybe only been out for 3 years. So the employer gets a bunch of resumes from "under-qualified" applicants or people who lie on their resumes. Personally, I have never, ever gotten a job or contract when a HR person has been involved in the hiring process (one exception: Creo in 1997), and I have never lied on a resume. As I look back on my career, I wondered if the two factors are related somehow.

3. Hey, media publications need to write about something: I guess it's a lot easier for a media pub to go to their adverstisers and say: "Hey, you're having trouble finding qualified people, let us do something to help you out" rather than say "Hey, how come wages haven't gone up in twenty years and why do you have trouble hiring people when your interviewers don't have a clue about the skill set that's need to do the job?"

Gee, I hope I don't offend my advertisers when I point this out. Oh wait, I don't HAVE any advertisers. Guess I don't have to worry. ;-}

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