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An old idea with a new urgency to find, hire and train young employees.

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HOW MANY OF you have hired someone in the last year, two years or ever – family members not included – who is 25 or younger? Chances are that very few of you have, because as we’ve seen, heard and experienced ourselves at Wagner Electric Sign Co. (Elyria, OH), sign companies are having an increasingly difficult time recruiting, hiring and retaining new, young employees.

I wrote about this looming crisis twice last year and also participated in a webinar on the subject. Since then, I did some research looking into starting a program with local, building-trades schools. Unfortunately, their curriculum does not fit the sign industry. So, now what?

We start from square one. The great cathedrals of Europe were built without college degrees or trade schools. They relied in large part on apprenticeship, and that is exactly what we need to do.

Where do we begin?

The Sorting Hat

Let us start at the high-school level, looking for kids with talent, an interest in art and a spark of creativity, who sign up for art class. We will need to sort them out, however. Although not everyone fits my classifications perfectly, I have noticed three major types of artists just starting to explore their creativity at a young age.

The first is the kid who likes art, has a little talent, but is not committed. This kid could go a day or two without creating anything and it would not matter. If they stick with it, they may end up going to art school or getting a degree in graphic design.

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They might be able to design some things well, but they are not likely to create decent signage, in my opinion.

apprentice working in shop

If you want to find new, young employees, start an apprenticeship program and introduce your apprentices to everything in the shop.

The next kid, the “Dark Doodler” as I call them, takes art class because they genuinely have talent and like to draw. They leave doodles all over their books and notepads, many being comic book or Dungeons & Dragons characters. They are great at drawing and have a definite contrast of solid colors in their minds that they need to put on paper. They have a desire and are willing to learn by observing. We can work with these kids in the sign industry.

Finally, the “Inquisitor” is a kid with talent who loves creating art. Always looking for a new medium to play with, they have mastered drawing and sketching and are now looking to expand to new materials so they can discover what they can do with them. This kid masters a medium, and moves onto the next, always keeping in the back of their mind what they have learned, and always seeking new ways to use what they have learned to create original things. These are the kids we really want. They are out-of-the-box thinkers and could produce very cool signage if guided in the right direction.

Full Exposure

The idea is that once you’ve found a promising high-school artist, you bring them to your shop and have them look at everything. Let them see the different techniques and skills so they can incorporate them into their thinking when formulating a project. You may find they suddenly want to learn to weld or bend neon just to do it.

How do we find these kids? Simple, make a phone call. Call your local high school and ask for the art teacher. Tell them your company is setting up a paid summer apprenticeship program in the sign industry and that you are looking for kids with artistic talent and the desire to learn. You’ll need to do this at least a month before the end of school for the year, so target March or April at the latest for this initial contact.

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Summer apprenticeship, you say. I suppose we better lay one out…

Coming soon: a program that can be introduced this spring and put into practice this summer – provided that it’s safe, of course. Stay tuned.

hand-drawing-letters

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

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