October 28, 2005
In the past year, The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, which has a circulation of 250,000 and covers territory from southeastern Virginia to the outer banks of northeastern North Carolina, has made some significant changes to its press-room operations. The press room, where the newspaper and all its varied inserts and sections are printed and assembled, has a new training program that resulted in significant cost and time savings, as well as a productivity boost for newly trained and existing press operators.
“When I first came to work here, I wandered around meeting people,” said Allen Byrd, press operations manager, The Virginian-Pilot. “I asked one of the young men what his job was, and he told me he was a press trainee. I asked him how long he’d been a press trainee, and he told me nine years. I kind of went, ‘Uh-oh. I think we have a problem here.’”
Byrd then looked at records and saw that past attempts to develop press-room training programs had been unsuccessful. So he joined forces with the Center for Effective Performance to put a new program together that would address The Virginian-Pilot’s press operation training needs. A little more than a year later, the newspaper produced its first six graduates.
The press-room training program was developed with structured, specific criteria built into 15 or so reference training modules that define what a trainee must do in order to be considered successful in that particular module and working that task on the job. “For instance, you have to reproduce front-page color registration within two rows of dots, within 1,000 copies of starting the press,” Byrd said. “If you ever look at a newspaper with a magnifying glass, all of those colors are different-colored little dots. They all have to be superimposed on each other for perfect registration for your ability to see it clearly with your eye. If it isn’t registered, it will look all fuzzy.”
The modules primarily are delivered via self-paced learning and instructor-led demos before learners are sent into the press room to practice and receive feedback from the instructor or a subject-matter expert. If learners decide that they can do what the module says they must to be successful, they can go to the instructor and request a skill check or assessment. This test-out procedure is a condition of further employment, and there is a time constraint. “There’s no option to fail this,” Byrd said. “You have to be able to do it. There is a defined time—you can’t take more than X amount of days or weeks for each module, but if you test out halfway through and fail, you still have time to get it right.”
The training and assessment time limit is six months, but Byrd said that The Virginian-Pilot has yet to run into that worst-case scenario. In fact, many people get through the program in as little as three months, and there are incentives to learn fast and well. The press training program has three phases with accompanying modules, and after each graduation there is a pay increase.
Before implementation of this 15-module program, Byrd said not much happened by way of training. “Somebody would get hired, and their personal motivation would determine whether they ever became a press operator or not. There was nothing in place to ensure that they did, so people languished around here for years as trainees,” he explained. “Plus, just like every other company in the world, replacing skilled labor as they retire isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, because nobody’s training them anymore. I wasn’t able to attract talent from other newspapers to come and step right in, and there was a track record before I came here of not being able to do that. And it turns out, if we don’t develop the talent in-house within the matter of a few years, we’re not going to have enough people to fulfill our mission.”
The program enables graduates to contribute immediately to press-room operations. Byrd said experienced operators also have taken advantage of training opportunities and enjoyed higher morale. Further, The Virginian-Pilot’s portfolio of products was produced in 162 fewer press hours than last year. A press hour involves a single press running for an hour with a crew of six or seven press operators. Waste also has been down, and with it, cost. Byrd said that the training and assessment process has cut paper costs by some $28,000 and chopped off $71,000 in overtime.
“We paid about $250,000 to have this program developed,” Byrd said. “I’m not even through one year in its implementation, and I’m already at over $100,000 savings. The payback is going to be really quick and really significant when you look at it projected over the long term. It will have itself paid back in two years, and then it’s going to be all profit after that.”
Kellye Whitney, firstname.lastname@example.org