Skilled Sign People Wanted, Part II

Potential solutions for recruiting and instructing the sign industry’s next generation.
Eric E. Larsen of Wagner Electric Sign Co. offers potential solutions for recruiting and instructing the sign industry’s next generation.

Two months ago, I wrote about a problem in the sign industry that needs to be confronted and solved: We need younger skilled people to take up the art of signmaking at all levels. 

Ask yourself, “What is the average age of the employees of our shop?” Chances are it’s higher than you think. How many of you have skilled fabricators or installers, ages 23-30, who can replace the person that just retired and had been in the sign industry for the past 30-plus years? By looking at the hundreds of want ads on websites of sign companies and of this magazine, you can bet most of us do not have anyone to replace employees who have been with us forever, let alone someone with the same skill set that you’ve been relying on for decades.

We in the sign industry need to do something about this!

OTHER TRADES DO IT

Larsen wonders why the sign industry doesn’t have similar training programs as the welding, plumbing, electrical and construction industries.
Larsen wonders why the sign industry doesn’t have similar training programs as the welding, plumbing, electrical and construction industries.

Those who can’t afford a college degree or don’t want to take on student-loan debt are often stuck working low-skill, low-paying jobs, but many of these younger people have the potential we need in our profession. So why not go after them? The welding, plumbing, electrical and construction industries have programs and schools to teach the skills they require for their lines of work. And even though the sign industry isn’t exactly like these other professions, why don’t we have the same training programs and schools? In our ranks are some of the most highly skilled people in the world, and when they leave, they take their knowledge with them. They could be the perfect teachers and mentors we need to secure the future of our industry. But how do we pay for passing down that sign wisdom? 

We need to find those younger people with the basic interest and talent and bring them into our shops. Put them alongside our fabricators, sign technicians, painters, welders, installers, maintenance crews, sign designers, vinyl and wrap wizards and office people – and teach them. If you have a neon bender or hand-lettering guru, put them alongside your best new people to learn what they do. The only way to replenish our skilled workforce is to pass their prowess on to the next generation.

But how do we do it? And how do we pay for it?

POOLING RESOURCES

For starters, I propose we get together and talk. Come up with a plan, gather information from sign companies willing to participate and organize an apprenticeship program for the sign industry. Talk about existing programs that may already be in place that other businesses can use as a starting point. If just a few companies in each state were to put in a few dollars, or a percentage of projects (voluntarily) into a fund, we could start a program. Funds could be used as a slight wage increase or as an incentive for our existing skilled people to teach what they do every day in our shops. The funds could help offset the hiring cost of an apprentice. Those funding the program would be able to participate in the program and any sign company could invest at any time down the road.

Larsen believes sign companies need to collect information, and come together to discuss ways to better recruit the next generation.
Larsen believes sign companies need to collect information, and come together to discuss ways to better recruit the next generation.

The trade association ABC (Associated Builders and Contractors) generates skilled workers for the contracting industry through their own training program. Their boiler-plate operations could serve as a model to start our own sign trade programs. 

As long as every business needs a sign, the sign industry will never go away. If anything, the sign industry could be in greater demand in the coming decades with technological changes we haven’t discovered yet. There will be a change in how we do business as we move through the computer age into what’s next, but we will still need skilled sign people in the shop and on the road. We need to be ready, and right now is the time to begin.

Next time it’s held, the ISA Sign Expo would be a great place to initiate the discussion with fellow sign companies. In the meantime, ISA’s Sign Manufacturing Day presents a terrific opportunity to introduce young people in your area to your company and the promising future it could hold.


Eric E. Larsen is the Lead Designer of the Historic Theatre Marquee Division of Wagner Electric Sign Co. (Elyria, OH).

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