The coronavirus has made a mess of the employment landscape, but companies in the print and mail industry can’t afford to sit around and wait for things to get back to normal. No one knows how long it will take, or which parts of “normal” will really return. As companies struggle to develop strategies in such an uncertain environment, they can’t lose track of the challenge presented by an aging workforce. That was an issue before the pandemic, and it will still be a predicament when we are finally through with the daily threat of this infectious disease.

The average age of a print industry worker is 47, and a good number of key positions are held by people well beyond that mark. Bringing fresh blood into the industry should still be a priority. The COVID-19 masks may cover a few telltale wrinkles, but skilled workers in the print and mail business are still growing older and getting closer to retirement every day.

Historically, skilled workers in this industry have learned their trade through on-the-job training. Once the economy recovers, nearly all the companies in the print/mail business will be looking for replacement workers. Finding someone who can step into a key role in your company on their first day is a long shot. You can’t wait until you’ve got major experience gaps in your print and mail operations crews before you begin working on a replacement strategy.

Labor unions and trade schools aren’t emphasizing document production as a field of study. It’s going to be up to individual print/mail service providers to develop training programs for themselves. Start with promising candidates and help them learn your business from the inside. Provide training in a wide variety of areas so your future workforce is ready to handle new developments in technology and markets.

Hiring Millennials

Younger people will be handling your equipment, customer relationships, and data. That means you’ll be hiring some millennials, who already represent a good portion of the workforce. You must set aside any negative opinions you have about the work ethic of this group. They are the people in the labor pool.

Millennials are looking for opportunities where they can develop quickly and have chances to advance. The print/mail business, though it’s probably not at the top of any millennial’s list of target industries, could provide them a path to their career objectives. Employers must structure their organizations to meet the needs of their upcoming workforce and communicate the benefits of working in the industry to potential job applicants.

The self-centered attitude of millennials on your staff could be an advantage. They want to be treated as individuals and they interact with others over multiple channels and methods; the same traits that are driving the personalized and data-driven omni-channel communications your company is probably producing. Who better to recognize deficiencies in an approach or notice an unmet need than someone who embraces these concepts as a major factor in their lives?

Effect of New Technology

New technology is turning shops formerly reliant on manual, labor-intensive workflows into automated document production factories. Today’s presses, mail inserters, and other production equipment are thinking machines. Much like the modern automobile, new digital print/mail equipment diagnoses problems itself, makes adjustments on the fly, and communicates with operators via information-rich monitor screens. These advances should be attractive to a younger, tech-savvy workforce.

Intelligent machines can contribute to a rejuvenated workforce in two ways:

1. The learning curve for new operators and technicians is shortened

2. Younger workers are digital natives and comfortable with electronic displays and guided operations found on newer equipment

Remember when coffee making was an art? Serving espresso used to require baristas to grind the beans to a certain degree of fineness, tamp down the grounds, pull the shots at the right time, and steam the milk. Failing to perform any of those tasks correctly resulted in a sub-par drink with customer experience ramifications.

Once the coffee shops began using automated espresso machines, all the employees had to do was press the right button. Training times shrunk, and employers didn’t worry so much about employee turnover.

Grocery store clerk jobs changed because of technology too. At one point in time, clerks were rewarded for their speed and accuracy as they punched the price of each item into a cash register and deducted coupons or accounted for soda and beer bottle deposits. They even had to know how to make change!

On my last grocery store visit, the self-checkout lanes outnumbered human clerks by about 3 to 1.

The same phenomenon is playing out in document centers. As print and mail facilities migrate to digital workflows and install intelligent production equipment, employee knowledge and experience necessary to do the job without constant supervision is shrinking. It won’t take years for a pressman or other machine operator to become proficient.

What People Do You Need?

In an industry like print and mail that is becoming ever more complex, certain traits and tendencies are favorable. As you bring in new employees to replace seasoned veterans who are retiring, seek candidates with the following characteristics:

Problem Solving — Candidates should be interested in solving problems and not frustrated when things don’t work out the first time. New applications and processes will present new challenges.

Detail Oriented — Automation may replace some manual operations of the past, but the humans will still be a weak link. Look for people who can pay attention to the details and spot trouble when it occurs.

Organized — This is a must in production print and mail. Depending on their position, people may juggle several print/mail jobs or clients simultaneously. A disorganized person is prone to mixing up the jobs or missing a deadline.

Communication Skills — This includes critical items like shift turnover conversations, but also more strategic types of communication such as documenting issues. For someone in a customer-facing role, such as an account manager, communication skills are vitally important.

Stress Tolerance — Everyone has deadlines in the print/mail business, and sometimes they overlap. Your new employees must be able to withstand the pressure when SLA compliance is on the line.

Flexibility — Employees must learn new skills so you can adjust work assignments according to daily workloads and react to new developments.

None of the skills I listed are specifically related to printing, mailing, or manufacturing. If you can find people with some experience in these areas, great! If not, look for candidates who demonstrate preferred characteristics and are willing to learn about your business.

Start Now

The coronavirus may have put staff recruitment on the back burner for now, but that doesn’t mean you should delay developing a strategy you can execute once business returns to a sustainable level. The pandemic has changed lots of things for people. Pew Research reported that 22% of Americans moved, or knew someone who moved, because of health concerns or economic conditions connected to the virus.

If you laid off people during the shutdown, they may find other employment before it’s time to call them back and won’t be available. Some older laid-off workers are choosing to retire early, rather than face long (and often fruitless) job searches. You may have to add new, inexperienced employees sooner than you thought.

Like seemingly everything else in 2020, predicting the long-term coronavirus effects on your staff is nearly impossible. But we have known about the greying of the workforce for some time. It’s best to be thinking about how you will address this issue now. As with many other business practices, the pandemic may accelerate the problem.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps his clients meet the challenges they encounter in document operations and creates informational content for vendors and service providers in the document industry. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, send a connection request on LinkedIn, or contact Mike directly at

This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2020 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.