Intensive, hands-on experience at Fox Valley Technical College ensures new and seasoned press operators hone their skills and deliver bottom line results for employers.

Seminars and degree programs taught by experienced press operators at Fox Valley Technical College in Appleton, Wis., allow attendees and students to see how flexo jobs run-and how to troubleshoot technical challenges when the presses stop running. Photo courtesy FVTC

Faced with issues of maintaining revenue and where the economy is (or isn’t) going, taking on additional employees may not seem to be a top-of-mind concern for packaging printers. In reality, though, many of today’s skilled operators are nearing their golden years and their replacements simply won’t fall out of the sky. At the same time, skills of those already in the workforce need to stay current, a task that can only be accomplished with exposure to the latest procedures and processes. That’s where schools like Fox Valley Technical College (FVTC) in Appleton, Wis., come in, preparing the next generation of press operators while also empowering industry veterans with the latest knowledge in flexible packaging printing.

FVTC’s Graphic Arts and Printing Technologies department offers basic flexo seminars, technical diplomas and even two-year associates degrees through its Package and Label Printing program. While each of these curriculums prepares students to hit a flexo press running, program instructor Mark Keller points out that virtually anyone in the flexible packaging industry stands to benefit from the courses.

“Whether they’re press operators, customer service reps or sales people, our goal is getting them familiar with the terminology, how a job comes in and how it goes out the door,” says Keller. “By teaching them pre-press all the way through the final rewind and finishing, they see the industry from different positions-pre-press, platemaking, ink technicians, customer service and sales, for instance.”

At several points throughout the year, FVTC organizes numerous three-day and three-and-a-half day seminars around its Flexographic Research & Training Center, complete with a 50-inch central impression gearless flexo press, a narrow web press and other related equipment. These seminars range from basic flexographic seminars, through fundamental narrow web or wide web press operations and on up to achieving consistency in process printing, a program that’s co-sponsored with the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA). Keller also explains that he and other FVTC instructors also regularly customize technical seminars and in-house training programs on various aspects of flexographic printing.

“I’ve been coordinating these seminars for 15 years and I don’t think two of them have been the same yet, because we do customize [a program] to a company’s needs,” explains Keller. “Most times, these companies are local, but we’ve seen companies worldwide come here.”

Like the seminars, FVTC’s full-time degree programs benefit from a comprehensive, hands-on learning experience afforded by up-to-date machinery and live demonstrations. As printing instructor Scott Gehrt explains, the key to this program is introducing students to the flexographic process and using different processes to serve as building blocks toward achieving either the one-year technical diploma or a two-year associates degree.

“Students can earn a technical diploma in just 44 weeks and the program is divided into five eight-week blocks,” says Gehrt. Gehrt explains the five blocks and their coursework as follows:

• Flexo 1 – Introduction to Flexographic Printing. Students learn industry terminology and theories associated with flexo printing, inks, substrates, photopolymer plates and press components.

• Flexo 2 – Pre-press. Using both Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, students design and create various prints for the narrow web, wide web and corrugate processes. Students also learn how to output films and both analog and digital photopolymer plates.

• Flexo 3 – Narrow Web Printing. Students begin to apply their newly learned skills on an operating a narrow web printing press. Using the designs created in Flexo 2, students learn to mount plates on different cylinders, work with a variety of inks and substrates and discover other narrow web procedures.

• Flexo 4 – Wide Web Printing. Students use their growing skills and state-of-the-art technology to print a variety of different line copy and designs on a PCMC Avanti 8-color press. Students also learn set-up procedures, clean-up procedures and how the inks and materials of wide web vary from those in narrow web.

• Flexo 5 – Corrugate Printing. Students learn how to print on a sheet-fed, 3-color rotary die corrugate press. Like in the narrow web and wide web blocks, students print on a variety of popular substrates.

When students leave the 44-week program, they have the skills necessary for becoming a press operator or assistant operator, but as Gehrt explains, they’re well-prepared to tackle virtually any challenge facing printers today.

“There are opportunities with pre-press companies-making plates or as a plate mounter-or perhaps an ink technician, or even in customer service or sales,” explains Gehrt. “The majority of our students will work on the floor in the industry, and eventually, they may graduate to a role in management. The sky’s the limit and that success depends on the individual.”

“As with most programs on the FVTC campus, our graduates have the skills to land entry-level positions over somebody who has not had the training,” says Rick Eisenach, printing instructor. Eisenach explains that while students don’t leave the door as experts in the field, the comprehensive coursework certainly gives them an edge. “The students learn a lot of theory behind the print process, not just which buttons to push to make the press work. They’re learning the theory behind everything, why it works like it does and problem solving.”

Full-time students in FVTC’s Package and Label Printing program are often older, displaced adults who, increasingly, are returning to school after losing jobs with companies across assorted industries. As Eisenach notes, students in his Flexo 2 class are a diverse group, even beyond their previous employment.

“We’re starting to see an increase in the number of women,” says Eisenach. “And of course, we’ve got different nationalities-we have had a student from Sri Lanka. They truly come from everywhere.”

Given the local college’s position in the densely packed Milwaukee-Fond du Lac-Green Bay, Wis., converting corridor, most Packaging and Label Printing graduates find work just outside FVTC’s front door, even in these trying times. In fact, job placement for recent graduates has held steady around 94%.

Whether a packaging printer is considering new hires or is seeking to keep its current staff on the cutting edge of flexo processes, Gehrt makes the potential benefits of reaching out to FVTC clear.

“We are the only school in the U.S., to my knowledge, that has narrow web, wide web and even corrugate all in one venue,” says Gehrt. “With that kind of background, our students are very valuable to the industry once they leave our program here.”

Fox Valley Technical College