Skilled Sign People Wanted

After COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, sign companies will face a familiar problem.
Eric E. Larsen of Wagner Electric Sign Co. (Elyria, OH) explains the difficulties sign companies face in hiring skilled, experienced laborers.

People enter the sign industry in several ways: Possessing artistic talent and knowing someone already in the industry are probably the most common paths of entry. It’s not like we graduate high school and say to ourselves, “I want to be a sign person. Where do I go to college for that?” Most of us stumble into it one way or the other.

The sign industry has grown in many areas over the past two decades with the proliferation of design software and introduction of large format printers and vinyl cutters. LEDs have replaced neon in a large percentage of what we build, and the way we perform maintenance has changed. The days of artistic wizards, hand-painting swirls of color and cutting straight lines with a camel-hair brush, or layout artists, hand-sketching pages of paper and creating works of art for presentations, are far less frequent. The neon benders heating tubes of glass and forming shapes over a hot torch are dwindling in numbers, as are truly experienced and well-rounded fabricators and installers.

Those days are gone not because of technological advances, but rather because the sign industry hasn’t succeeded in handing “sign skills” down to the next generation, or made the prospect of working in signs attractive enough. The proof is painfully evident when any sign company initiates a search for new people to fill the void as the older generation retires.

WHO TO HIRE?

Mark Wagner, president of Wagner Electric Sign Company in Elyria, OH – the company I work for – has advertised for help in various positions in his company for many years. I asked him about the areas in which he’s having trouble finding sign-business-experienced help. “As the job market tightens, it becomes that much more difficult,” he said, as most people entering the workforce now have few or no marketable skills that apply to signs. “We have always been willing to train if they are willing to learn,” Mark added, though noting, “This has been difficult as well, since many of those people just end up looking for a job and not a career. At some point you hire enough helpers. Sign companies need leaders, experienced, responsible leaders.”

I asked how long it took him to find an experienced sign professional for his last hire. “Honestly, the only time we do find experienced sign professionals is when they leave another shop,” Mark said, “which can have other negative consequences. Or they are relocating, in which case you just get lucky.” The limited number of skilled sign professionals available is the number one challenge to growing his business, Mark reported. “There is plenty of work to be found,” he said. “Adding experienced, skilled employees to produce the product is the barrier.”

WHERE TO LOOK?

So, where or how does one find experienced people to fill vacating positions in the sign industry? “We have done what we can to work with our local vocational school,” Mark said, though he cautioned that our nation’s vocational schools do only an average job at training very basic job skills in certain areas, including the specialized realms required of the sign industry.

Another thing Wagner Electric Sign Co. has done is hire skilled people part-time out of retirement. “Short of those things it’s a process of hiring those who apply and putting them through a probation period,” Mark said. “Either you have found someone who can be trained, or you move on to the next hire. This process is expensive and frustrating, but necessary.” I’m sure most of you are experiencing the same issues and more when it comes to locating skilled labor.

As the sign industry has grown, our pool of skilled “sign people” is dwindling. We need to evaluate where we are as an industry and solve this problem soon. The past few decades, our industry has seen an explosion in technology, which, contrary to most consequences of automation, has opened up more jobs on the labor side as most fabrication and installation work still must be performed by human beings. Now, we have a shortage, and it is potentially costing us our future as we sift through the available unskilled workforce. 

We can only blame ourselves. So, what do we do? In the August issue, I will suggest some ideas. Until then, ask yourself, “What have I done to introduce the sign industry to the younger generations?”