Tony Palmer looks at how best to handle the lifeblood of all printing enterprises – the people who print the shirts

I have been very fortunate to visit lots of different print shops. These range from the single operator/owner trying to earn extra money by printing shirts for his mates in the garage, to vertically integrated corporate entities operating over 50 presses on a three-shift rotation. The common factor I find in all these places is not the brand of press, nor the type of ink (water-based or plastisol will continue to be a point of preference in all shops) – it is that all these places employ people.

“Do you know any printers?”

People, aka ‘the squishy things’, are the lifeblood of all enterprises; they also create the most complex issues. Good employees are hard to find and even harder to keep. Bad employees are easy to find and difficult to remove. The most common question I get asked is not: “What’s the best shore of blade?” or “What’s the ideal mesh count?” It’s: “Do you know any printers?” The question of skilled press operators is easy to solve – my advice is always: “Make a printer, don’t buy a printer.”

If you find an employee with a high level of intelligence (not necessarily academic), you can teach them the fundamental principles of garment decoration. Mesh selection and picking the optimum colour order sequence, finely balancing speed angle and pressure, expert heat management – all of these are skills that can be learned. Exposure to problems and finding solutions is a basic human skill, and I believe we all possess this skill. Another reason to make, not buy, is that when you employ a printer from another shop, you run the risk of inheriting someone else’s problems. More often than not, you’ll have to deprogram a new employee before you can start to introduce the best working practices you’ve worked so hard to instil in your own print shop.

Star management

Two of the basic requirements for a truly gifted press operator are passion and pride. Passion in the work they produce, and a true, deep-rooted pride in the tiny pieces of art they create daily. I once asked a young, gifted press operator what printers need in order to advance to the next level: their one- word answer – “Pride”.

When an operator brings me a perfectly opaque and immaculately registered three-colour print for the hairy-arsed builders down the road, my chest swells a little as I can see the pride practically emanating from this apprentice in the dark art of print. Managing these star employees is a true skill. I have heard the phrase before that ‘your best press operator is not always your best manager’. The same is true if you both share the last name.

Most shops start off small and usually consist of friends or family, most often both. This can also present problems as disputes from work can easily migrate to the home personal life. It is truly painful to see families torn apart over the best way to run a garment decoration company. Shops that are aware of the potential for flare-ups manage to navigate this minefield without causing long-lasting feuds, allowing them to continue to grow and steadily increase the number of people they employ.

The 50 employees rule

I have a totally unfounded and completely unproven theory (anyone who knows me will know that I have lots of these) – namely, that there exists a magic number of employees and this number is 50. Below 50, the company usually consists of family friends and like-minded people all pulling in the same direction. The highly demanding goal of producing top-quality decorated apparel and workwear is the main preoccupation and driving force of everyone involved in the business. At employee number 50, things seem to take on a different direction. Now there are groups and cliques, and you start to introduce split-breaktimes and divide tasks into departments. You’ll need to arrange meetings to talk to everyone and the actual managing and handling of staff becomes an extremely time-consuming task.

Pre-50 employees, the task of handling all the payslips, working out who has holidays, appraisals and even the little bonus of running round with a list of ‘whose birthday it is this week so we can all enjoy cake’, fell to a member of the owner’s family or to the person who had been there so long they’re practically family. Post-50 employees, this task of managing the staff becomes a full-time occupation, and is often a job one that no one wants to do. The daily grind of managing suppliers and customers, of juggling deadlines and budgets and trying to ensure everyone gets paid at the end of the month is suddenly compounded by issues such as “My uncle’s cat has depression and I can’t come into work today” or “My mum says I can finish at two today because we need to go shopping”.

Over the years I have heard some of the strangest comments from employees and had to handle some unexpected situations, including the minefield of when a group of employees band together to tell you they are totally unhappy with the selection of snacks in the vending machine and if you don’t do something about it they are all going on strike! Or, my personal favourite: “The guys on the first floor say the girls on the second floor smell.”

Managing HR (human resources) is not a task to be taken lightly and my advice is always to employ a professional to try and manage all the little issues that people inevitably bring. If your business is too small to warrant an HR professional, try using an online tool to manage all the HR tasks instead. There are some great online cloud-based programs available, such as, that allow employees to book their own holidays, arrange time off and raise grievances. I would recommend one of these to start with; they need a little admin but are really worthwhile.

Soft skills

The squishy things are an important part of any organisation and, in my opinion, managing them requires more skill than any 14-colour, 85lpi, pseudo-process water-based job on polyester with three special effects. Running a garment decoration business successfully requires a multitude of skills and the ability to multi-task on several different planes of existence. Finding the right balance to keep people happy and getting high-quality output at the same time is a difficult yet rewarding task, and should be approached with care. The many different facets of our chosen profession call for many different and unique skills, but none quite so diverse as the skills we need for dealing with the staff!

Tony Palmer has been in the garment decoration industry for over 30 years and is now an independent print consultant working closely with print shops to get the most from existing processes and techniques. Tony is passionate about keeping and enhancing production skill levels within the industry. He is the owner and consultant at Palmprint Consultants, offering practical help and assistance to garment decorators all over the globe.