Ask the average person to imagine the print industry and the image that will spring to mind will be of dirty presses and militant unions. The reality is that it is a dynamic sector where companies only survive if they can produce exactly what the customer wants, when they want it and at the right price.
It is a manufacturing industry, yet while all manufacturers strive to minimise the costs inherent in stock sitting idle on shelves by making to order, print is constrained by cast-iron sell-by dates. Late delivery of components will not stop cars or aircraft eventually reaching the customer, but try selling a daily newspaper the day after its publication date.
Catherine Hearn is group HR director at printing company Polestar. With 5,500 employees – of whom 85 per cent are shopfloor workers – at sites in the UK, in mainland Europe and in North America, it is one of the UK’s biggest printing firms. Among its customers are Radio Times, Hello! magazine, a number of supplements for national newspapers and catalogues for retailers Argos and Ikea.
These prestige customers set rigid deadlines and expect high standards, creating a culture which, to a large extent, governs the company’s HR strategy.
Hearn says: “I have worked in four different industry sectors and every one of them thinks it is distinct, but ultimately printing is a manufacturing process. Where it differs from other manufacturing sectors is that we don’t build for stock and we work to extremely tight schedules. For example, printing a Sunday supplement on the preceding Wednesday.
“This means there is pressure on people to be quick and knowledgeable and move work along quickly. This forms the backbone of our culture. The holy grail of the industry is customer service and any employees must understand customer requirements above all else,” says Hearn.
Despite the laws passed under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and the defeats by the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s News International, the print unions are still strong and a lot of Hearn’s time is devoted to employee relations. But she is keen to stress that this cannot be allowed to dominate the HR agenda.
Business is booming and the company is expanding, so her concerns are to attract employees, retain and train them. The company has 70 apprentices, six undergraduate trainees and 25 people in professional training programmes such as the print MBA.
“We have a big training agenda – it is pivotal,” she says. “A lot of manufacturing companies had put training on the backburner, but in the current economic climate there is a need to redress that. We have been paying a lot of attention to training and have been recruiting trainees and apprentices.”
One tool used extensively in attracting recruits, then training and retaining them is Polestar’s CD-Rom training package, Print Dynamics. The three-hour CD covers the entire lifecycle of a print product from ordering and customer relations, through detailed technical explanation of the print process to finishing and distribution.
“It gives a comprehensive explanation of the entire process of printing,” says Hearn. “The CD allows people to go in at different points according to their role. They can go in at the level of overview or dive into the detail. It can be used with interactive whiteboard technology, which captures an image from the screen and allows the employee to make notes next to it and save them to their computer.
“With it, people can understand how they fit into the entire process. The thing about many jobs is that people are focused on their own role, so it is often too easy to pass on problems between them,” she says.
Print Dynamics, which won the most innovative product from a supplier award from industry body the Periodical Publishers Association in 2004, was created by Darrin Stevens, who was appointed group training director 18 months ago. For Hearn, his appointment was key in addressing Polestar’s recruitment and training needs.
“We knew what we wanted and we got lucky when we met Darrin. He has a passion that can knock down walls,” says Hearn.
The CD-Rom is also used for recruitment. “Printing is not at the forefront of most minds in terms of starting or changing careers,” Hearn says.
“We have to really go and tell people about the industry. We try to get out to schools and colleges. The syllabus for 14- to 19-year-olds has changed a lot and career studies allows schools to draw from Print Dynamics.”
Polestar has been restructuring – bringing in new equipment, closing sites and opening a 700,000sq ft facility on the site of a former steelworks near Sheffield.
This has entailed a recruitment drive for 500 employees with expansion to 1,000 staff planned. With the help of Print Dynamics the company has tried to break down the traditional demographics of the industry and tap new sources of recruits.
“We have to get people to think of us differently, that the industry is not dirty any more because the equipment we use is modern. It is also quite a white, male industry and we are trying to redress this by, for example, working with community groups so people at least think of applying to us,” says Hearn.
Benefiting from experience
Recruits have found the company is keen to train its employees. It works for both employer and employee. “There is a real desire for training,” says Hearn. “We have been recruiting 18- to 19-year-olds who go through three to four years’ training at the company, combined with a distance learning degree from the University of Leeds. The programme combines on-the-job experience with the theoretical knowledge to support it. After five years, the person is in an experienced position and has a degree.”
“On the shopfloor, we have been giving employees the chance to move across the business by bringing in NVQ level 2 and 3 training.”
Polestar’s emphasis on recruitment and technical training are important HR concerns because of its involvement in the physical process of printing. Other companies in the sector have a different orientation. Communisis, which besides turning out printed matter, devotes a large portion of its business to print management, where customers outsource design, procurement and distribution of their print needs.
Tony Commons is group HR director for Communisis, which employs 2,500 people at 19 sites in the UK and Europe. He sees similar issues that affect all companies in the print industry.
“HR in print is no different from in any other sector in that it is there to implement the strategy of the business with productive, motivated employees who are trained and developed to the best of their abilities,” he says. “The common challenge to all in the industry is that it is run to very tight margins so you have to operate in an efficient way with productive employees working flexibly. Historically, this has not been the case in print.”
But where Polestar’s HR strategy focuses on the recruitment, training and retention of a largely shopfloor-based workforce, Communisis has training programmes running at four levels in its organisation with the emphasis on expanding its print management business across Europe.
It has implemented leadership training for 10 people at director-level in conjunction with Cranfield School of Management. At operational management level – roles such as sales manager and marketing manager – it is putting 50 people through a management development programme with consultancy Bray Leino. Customer-facing staff are put through relationship management training programmes and on the shopfloor 70 people have been selected for manufacturing leadership training.
Commons says: “We have sites with mature workforces, but the main challenge is for print management to have the most efficient sales teams. The focus at the moment is to develop our European structure, recruiting and developing people in European countries. We are seeing a growth of Europe-wide purchasing by customers and we want to encourage that and be able to respond to it.”
Tony Commons group HR director, Communisis
2002-present Communisis, group HR director
1995-2002 Rexan US, HR director
1990-1995 Rexan Europe, divisional HR director
1980-1990 DRG, employee relations manager
Catherine Hearn group HR director, Polestar
July 2002-present Polestar, group HR director
1996-2002 Joined Guinness Brewing in June 1996 as employee relations and policy director. She later became HR director for some international markets. With the integration of Guinness Brewing and UDV, she was appointed HR director of Diageo Business Services
1986-1996 Various personnel management roles at computer company ICL. Her experience also includes seven years at London Transport
Key issues for HR in the printing industry
– Employment relations in a highly-unionised sector is important, but potentially very time-consuming.
– Recruitment in a booming jobs market is difficult, so attracting people to printing and retaining them is a priority.
– It is a fast-moving sector where customers demand delivery of products exactly to specification and on time, so the culture of the industry demands quick-thinking, knowledgeable employees.
– Training and development is important for attracting and retaining effective staff.