Knowledge = Power = Success

Training. It's as essential to the growth and vitality of a converting operation as air and water are to all living things. Many companies have in-depth, internal training programs, complete with training directors to oversee extensive agendas. Others, however, draw their strength from outside sources, including high schools, colleges, universities, and independent industry training institutes.

Focusing on Flexo

Flexographic Trade School (FTS) (www.weareflexo.com), founded in Charlotte, NC, in 2000 and now located in Fort Mill, SC, is perhaps one of the best-known private flexo training centers. The school services 100 label, folding carton, and film printing converters at its commissioned training facility. The staff and its 40+ vendor sponsors provide equipment, materials, supplies, and technical support.

FTS has three presses that print up to eight colors and train eight people at a time at various stations. Six Mac stations accommodate eight people.

Founder Art Fields says his school's attendee base is as diverse as the industry. “We provide training to people already in the industry,” he notes, “and we've offered training to people who don't even know what flexo is.”

The FTS boot-camp-type education process, as described on its website, provides three months of process training under the pressures of achieving quality and productivity for live jobs commissioned by FTS member companies. How demanding is the course? “You can be late once,” says Fields. “If you know you're going to be late a second time, you can save the gas.”

High Placement Rates

Virtually all of the schools — from colleges and universities that offer two- and four-year programs to private schools like FTS whose courses last just months — claim a graduate placement rate at or near 100%. But enrollment tends to face space limitations, even though demand for qualified employees remains aggressive.

Jim Torino, professor at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Stout (www.uvstout.edu), says his 89-year-old, four-year school boasted a 100% graduate placement rate in the 2004-2005 school year, with an average rate in previous years of 98%. Graduates found jobs at such companies as Alcan, Menasha, CL&D Graphics, Bell-Mark, 3M, and Flint Ink.

“We typically have more recruiting for students than we have students,” explains Torino. “The industry is badly in need of these folks, particularly in the packaging and converting market.”

Courses include three on electronic prepress, three on print reproduction, three on print management, even two on distribution. Students also attend two classes in which they complete live jobs for local companies.

The department boasts an array of equipment, including six-, four-, and two-color presses in widths to 10 in. It also operates a CTP platemaker and a tabletop gravure proofing press.

“All our Graphic Communications Management students get their hands on all of it,” Torino says.

Demand Exceeds Supply

Jim Reineke, package and label printing instructor at Fox Valley College (FVTC) (www.fvtc.edu/flexo), says the hands-on nature of FVTC's program, combined with limited space, allows maximum enrollment, yet request for employee placement from the converting community far exceeds the school's supply.

“I've got a couple of companies that call and want seven or eight students at a time,” says Reineke. “If our graduates want a job, they can get one.”

The college offers 50 different programs plus outside training. “If it has to do with flexographic testing or training, we do it,” notes Reineke.

Fox Valley's instruction focuses on three main areas: a “technical diploma”; a one-year (44-wk), entry-level program just like any other community college; and a two-year associate degree program that requires an internship between semesters.

Reineke says FVTC students “actually enjoy the [internship] program because it gives them a chance to get their foot in the door somewhere.”

Fox Valley's most popular programs are on process printing, conducted in cooperation with the Flexographic Technical Assn. (FTA). Seminars on narrow web and wide web printing are limited to eight people; process color programs, both introductory and advanced, are limited to 24 students.

Where should students focus their attention? “Right now in this industry, any area is a good area,” suggests Reineke. “If you're strong on computers, there are a lot of jobs in prepress. If you are mechanically inclined, there are a lot of press jobs. The industry is growing, and a lot of people are retiring at the same time, so no matter what your background is, or what you excel at, you can fit in somewhere.”

Active Association

The FTA (www.flexography.org) holds dozens of symposiums, training courses, and conferences throughout the year, typically in conjunction with a regional college or university, including Clemson Univ., Cal Poly, DiTrilio Flexographic Inst., Fox Valley College, and more. (For a full list of seminars, visit www.flexography.org).

The organization held it first on-the-road seminars in 1959. John Anderson, technical and education director for the FTA, says the group later began producing books and training manuals. About eight years ago, FTA delved into multimedia, most recently offering the FlexSys Press Simulator, which comes with an entire “skill building” curriculum that can be used as is or be customized for individual plants to develop training that is unique to the press, the print job, materials, typical problems, and the individual. The FlexSys training sessions can be established to fit around work shifts, scheduled downtime, new hire orientations, and slow periods.

The association has expanded the convenience and availability of its “Level 1 Skills Training” course by releasing it on-line in conjunction with Anderson & Vreeland. Since the program is easy to operate, it can be completed conveniently off-site.

“Instead of having to develop their own training material, it's all done on-line,” notes John Andersen. “[The students] log in, and it will track everything they do and how many times they go in. Basically, all they have to do is set aside the time, about four to six hours, with support reading.”

Programs for Broad Audience

AIMCAL, the Assn. of Industrial Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (www.aimcal.org), offers a number of programs geared toward operators, engineers, and senior management. Among them is the Fall Technical Seminar, to be held October 7-10 in Scottsdale, AZ, which examines technical, production, plant, and new technology issues. This a two-track program that features approximately 70 presentations and typically attracts between 250 and 300 people.

AIMCAL also holds separate “Fundamentals For Converters” seminars at CMM Intl., in conjunction with CEMA, on slitting and rewinding and coating and laminating. The two-day seminars focus on “the real life application of technology…the ‘tricks' of the trades to assure greater productivity and higher quality output,” says CEMA.

The association sponsors a four-day “summer school” that includes a series of process, problem-solving sessions taught by industry consultants and educators. AIMCAL director Craig Sheppard says its programs and conferences are “an integral part of our offering. We view AIMCAL as sitting on four cornerstones: sales/marketing, technical, research, and networking. The technical aspect is essentially fulfilled by the training and information we offer there.”

Don't Forget Gravure

Western Michigan Univ. (www.wmich.edu) says it's the only school to offer gravure training, in addition to flexo. Its five-day course, presented in conjunction with the Gravure Assn. of America (www.gaa.org), attracts students from as far as 1,000 miles away. The course includes 20 hrs of classroom instruction, 6-8 hrs touring other facilities, and 1½-2 days of training on the only university gravure press in the nation.

“To be able to train in a classroom and have presenters and training, and to only have to go 150 feet through a set of doors to that other press has put us in a pretty good position in that market,” says John Meyer, director of the school's printing pilot plant.

Meyer says graduates do not receive a degree but rather a certificate. There typically are 20-25 students in each class; 15 students generally attend its two-day flexo course. The school expects to offer advanced flexo courses in 2007.

Explains Meyer, “We do have some press operators who have been in the industry for several years, but some have just acquired new responsibilities, maybe gone from operator to supervisor, assistant operator to operator, working on new machines. We also have people who are new to the graphic arts industry, including sales, manufacturing, and customer service. They benefit as well.”

Meyer notes that 70% of the work completed by the department is non-disclosure testing of substrates, inks, and chemicals for public and private companies that don't have in-house equipment to do so.

Hands-On Learning

Joe Mauser is marketing manager for Chemsultants Intl. Network (www.chemsultants.com), which touts itself as “the best equipped and largest adhesives, converting, contract product development laboratory in the world.” Mauser says its mission is distinct and direct: “We don't do seminars or conferences. We do hands-on workshops, and that's what sets us apart.”

Chemsultants' workshops are largely dedicated to adhesives. It offers such programs as “Introduction to Pressure Sensitive Adhesive Technology” and “Introduction to PSA Tapes, PSTC Test Methods and Test Training Workshop.”

“The attendees not only get an education from a lecture standpoint, but there are also in-lab demonstrations, and others where they actually participate in the lab work. So, it's got a hands-on aspect to it,” says Mauser.

Converters Chime In

Huston Patterson (www.hustonpatterson.com), a 100-year-old, $20-million, Decatur, IL-based printer of labels and top sheets for packaging and POP customers, is a prime example of how old dogs can learn new tricks. President and CEO Tom Kowa says the secret to a long life (corporate life, at least) is to continually upgrade employee skills. The company largely does so internally, with written instructions that ensure continuity with existing and new employees. He notes employees typically get four to six weeks of training on new equipment from the manufacturer, which is shared with other employees.

“We take the top four pressmen, because usually it's a printing press that is the most intricate to learn, then they train the rest of the people,” notes Kowa. “It's worked very well for us.”

One of the nation's largest label converters, WS Packaging Group (www.wspackaging.com), is headquartered in Algoma, WI, but has more than a dozen facilities across the country. The company typically has about 20 new employees each month. As such, it has its own internal training program that addresses new and existing employees, depending on needs. Company managers routinely attend seminars, and the other employees are subsequently trained as well.

“It's pretty much dictated by the employees coming into the facility with needs that are specified by the supervisors or managers,” says Diane Beirsteker, VP of human resources. “We have regular training sessions they attend. It's both classroom and very hands-on. For the press operators and apprentices, we have a customized program permitting them to go through and get certified.”

Stand-Out Suppliers

Harper Corp. of America (www.harperimage.com), one of the industry's most philanthropic privately held companies, deserves a special place in any discussion of training.

Harper offers Flexo Road Shows in conjunction with educational facilities and related vendors. These complimentary seminars focus on solutions for flexo challenges. Harper offers customized seminars on-site or at its facilities through HarperScientific.

Ron and Katherine Harper's vision of a partnership between education and the flexo industry to fill the need for trained workers resulted in what originally was called the Flexo in High School Program in 1993. Today it is known as the Flexo in Education Program. The program brings together the support of the industry, the Foundation of FTA, Tag & Label Mfrs. Inst. (TLMI), and a number of schools. For a list of schools, go to www.harperimage.com/flexo-schools.asp.

Harper's employees routinely attend seminars at companies such as Sun Chemical on color matching and DuPont on platemaking. Even Pete Hartman, Harper's veteran VP of sales and marketing, attends three or four training seminars a year. “We have a formal requirement under our ISO program that stipulates everyone has to have a certain number of hours of training each year,” he says. “It's ongoing. We're always seeking out training.

“I've even been to Accounting 101,” he adds with a laugh. “We all went to college, but let's face it, I wasn't going to be an accountant. But then you realize, ‘I really need to understand a balance sheet to see how we're doing and where we're going.' So it never ends.”

Maxcess Intl., Oklahoma City, OK (www.maxcessintl.com), offers Maxcess Univ., a web handling resource that draws on the expertise of Fife, MAGPOWR, and Tidland. Formats include hands-on training and trouble-shooting classes held in various cities and online e-seminars.

Maxcess plans to have its university program accredited to award continuing education units through the Intl. Assn. for Continuing Education and Training (www.iacet.org), known for its rigorous standards.

Additional Resources

Courses and Workshops

Trade Shows/Conferences

For a complete list of industry associations, see PFFC's Buyers Guide issue (March pBG 104), or visit www.pffc-online.com/images/archive/Assoc&Org.


Subscribe to PFFC's EClips Newsletter