As the signage and print industry continues to evolve, fostering a diverse and inclusive work environment becomes essential for welcoming young talent and promoting their professional growth.
In an exclusive interview with Jeff Bufton, Head of Operations for Signs Express and board member of the ISA UK, we gained insights into their policies, initiatives, and success stories concerning the recruitment, development, and support of young employees within their network.
Signs Express, a network of nearly 60 production centres across the UK and Ireland, exemplifies this commitment through its progressive approach to employing young professionals. The company is the largest employer in the signage industry with more than 300 people across the network.
EoD: Having read the original article on this topic (https://www.eyeondisplay.co.uk/how-do-we-encourage-more-young-people-into-print-and-sign-making/), do you have any comments on this?
JB: This is an important topic, and I am very glad that you are covering it. I was part of the Trailblazer group that worked with the Institute for Apprenticeships, which developed the Signage Technician Apprenticeship that Walsall College is currently running. I would like to add a few points:
- It’s no longer an NVQ (you don’t need a qualification to be a sign maker)
- It covers every aspect of a signage job, from enquiry, scoping solutions, production and installation – it is important in an industry where large areas of work are automated that we have people who aren’t simply machine operators.
- We wanted a wide-ranging course that gave young people a full view of all areas of the signage industry that included the customer experience and commerciality around each job.
- We were mindful that many sign companies are small employers who want all-rounders, whereas some larger companies have roles for very specific tasks.
- Despite lots of calls to action, very few employers came forward to help develop the course.
There are 27 ‘creative’ and 154 ‘manufacturing’ live apprenticeship courses currently available. Signage Technician comes under manufacturing, and there are further courses for print, metal fabrication (blacksmiths), and many more.
EoD: What do you feel are the issues holding back the signage industry when it comes to showcasing it to a potential younger workforce?
JB: As you covered in your article, the signage and print industry is not seen as a mainstream job role (we are in the manufacturing sector). It isn’t construction or engineering based, so there is no obvious pathway from school. Sadly, modern sign-makers are not always seen as true craftsmen anymore when compared to more traditional techniques of signwriting and screen printing.
We have also found that many young designers don’t particularly want to make stuff – they want to design. It often comes down to the fact that there is no real visibility on how this industry works and how signs are made.
The signage and print industry continues to merge with other related sectors, which appears to be diluting the different specialist skills and jobs. The brand-related sector now includes signage, litho print, screen print, engravers, AV, metal fabrication, graphic design, interiors/architectural, photographic prints, workwear, merchandising & personalisation, events, experiential & exhibitions, POS, retail, VM, Digital media (video, FX, UX, websites), vehicle detailing to name but a few. It’s a lot to cover and makes it very hard for young people to identify with the industry as a whole.
EoD: What is Signs Express’s policy on employing younger people
JB: We don’t differentiate on age during the recruitment process because we believe it’s more important for our staff to have the right long-term commitment to a career. However, but by the very nature of how the Signs Express network operates, there is a culture of support, development, continual learning, and growth within the network for whoever joins.
Culture is an important emphasis in this context. When a centre hires somebody new to the industry, we educate them in all areas of production, so no two days or jobs are the same. There is a strong hands-on ethos, and as such, candidates must demonstrate a real ‘can-do’ attitude and willingness to learn.
In return, each member of staff will become more immersed in the business, helping them to understand our approach to customer service, the assistance available throughout our network, and how to approach challenges. That is powerful, as it helps create a natural career progression as they become more valuable to the business over time.
As a network, we run a series of social events throughout the course of the year and numerous training days. Many of our centres are family-owned and close-knit communities, so our staff can see first-hand how they contribute to the business and how they grow with it.
EoD: How does Signs Express actively encourage and support the recruitment of young talent?
Once a centre decides on the required level of experience, they place advertisements on platforms like the ISA UK website and Indeed. They also work closely with Walsall College, which is the largest college delivering the Signage Technician apprenticeship course, to identify suitable candidates for junior roles.
EoD: What specific initiatives or programmes does Signs Express have in place to attract and develop young employees?
JB: Signs Express adopts a holistic approach, with specific initiatives in place for attracting and developing young employees who want to develop their career in our industry:
- Attract: Collaboration with Walsall College during recruitment and onboarding to demonstrate a structured learning path.
- Develop: A Learning Management System (LMS) and internal training assets for continuous learning and growth.
- Community Building: Plans for a dedicated community within the network to facilitate knowledge-sharing and support.
EoD: How does Signs Express ensure that young employees are integrated into the workplace and given opportunities for growth and development?
JB: Being a network of small businesses means that all staff are part of a close-knit (often family) team. Of course, they also have to contribute to the business, so whilst we don’t throw them in at the deep end, we do keep a close eye on how they perform during certain tasks and under various conditions to see where they may need extra support to get them up to speed. This can be from the centre management or with any of the specialist teams at the SX Support Centre.
EoD: Are there any mentorship or training programmes tailored specifically for young employees at Signs Express?
Our new Learning Management System (LMS) has various Learning Pathways that are being mapped out and developed – including one for Young People and apprenticeships. Our bite-size course content is being written and pitched to give ‘awareness’ and ‘overview’ so they are tailored for everyone to gain an understanding on each specific topic.
EoD: What benefits and career progression opportunities does Signs Express offer to young employees?
JB: Firstly, Signs Express encourages all young employees to be enrolled on an apprenticeship programme (most sign companies don’t even do that) to help give them a structured start in their signage careers.
Secondly, by the very nature of many of our centres being small businesses, new starters are soon involved in many areas of business and are fast-tracked if they excel in certain areas as centres grow. This includes empowering, nurturing and encouraging all staff to think for themselves and problem-solve, helping them deliver excellent customer service and develop management skills.
EoD: How does Signs Express ensure that young employees are treated fairly and have equal opportunities for advancement within the company?
JB: Being a part of the Signs Express network means that centres have to operate both ethically and responsibly at all times, including towards all staff. Every staff member is given a handbook which has several policies and statements within it designed to protect them, plus we have an HR provider who supports the whole network.
We also encourage all centres to run regular staff appraisals and skills matrixes to map out Personal Development Plans. All Signs Express centres have yearly audits, but thankfully we have a network of centre owners and managers who are by nature responsible employers and realise that staff retention and development are key to growing a business.
We also encourage employees to ask questions. One of the great strengths of Signs Express is its ability to share knowledge across a network with vast experience. So through various channels, including Yammer, staff at all levels can present a challenge, and in almost every case, someone across the network will have the experience or solution.
Culturally, we have lots of events, including our yearly Convention, which also give employees an opportunity to network with the rest of Signs Express.
EoD: Can you share some success stories of young employees who have thrived within the Signs Express team?
JB: Yes, lots! In no particular order:
- Our network’s current Employee of the Year started her career as an apprentice.
- We have several Centre Managers and business owners in their 30s and one is under 30.
- Many of the Production Managers/Supervisors within the network joined as sign-makers and have progressed into leadership roles.
- We have had some recent MBOs where former Production and Centre Management staff now own the business.
EoD: As a company, how do you foster a diverse and inclusive work environment that welcomes young talent and promotes their professional development?
JB: As touched on previously, we are a network of independently owned small signage production businesses that are run by people from all walks of life and from all over the world. They all employ people who will go on to contribute to the business and its growth by doing a wide range of various tasks that they typically wouldn’t do in larger companies. We tend not to employ ‘just’ machine operators.
Signs Express’s commitment to nurturing young talent within the signage industry reflects the company’s progressive and inclusive approach. By providing equal opportunities, structured learning paths, and continuous development, the network empowers young professionals to thrive and contribute to the growth of the signage and print industry.
For more information on Signs Express and its initiatives for young talent, visit www.signsexpress.co.uk.