'Our people do not have the skills'

Whatever the other Manifestos for the Future of the Book Business are—whatever exciting areas people propose for change in the industry, whether it's in digital, or business workflows or product development—our people do not have the skills to make it happen.

I was amazed at the response to the FutureBook piece Menial publishing jobs are destroying our future, which questioned:

  • Why, as an industry, we still get humans to do the work of computers
  • Why we keep entry-level positions secretarial, and
  • Why we don’t provide the right sort of training to equip our people for the future.

I thought it'd be accused of hyperbole. Instead, the response was quite the opposite.

People sent sackfuls of public and private messages of fervent agreement and thanks for writing about the problem.

It seems that there’s a groundswell of discontent throughout the junior ranks, horrified at what is evident to any impartial observer: we don't train our people and we don't expect them to be formally skilled.

So here’s what we should do about it.

Educate senior management about what code can do

If senior management were technical—if they knew what computers can do—they wouldn’t stand for the gross waste of time and creativity in their companies.

So let’s launch a series of non-technical yet software-specific, capability-focussed seminars for senior managers. A simple example: show senior managers 20 people editing one Google spreadsheet at the same time. It's free, accessible, requires no extra training, no servers, and it removes the costs, errors and embarrassment that stems from having more than one version of the truth. Trello, Pandadocs, Capsule, Google Drive, Dropbox, Pipedrive, Slack, FogBugz— many cloud-based apps are cheap and solve some entrenched publishing problems.

Recognise that technical skills take time to develop

Publishing is not a sector used to taking the long view. If you’re designing a new jet engine, you know it’s going to take a decade before your investment of time and effort pays off. Publishers should recognise that an investment in providing staff with technical skills training will not pay off this quarter, or the next.

In five years time, you’ll have the right workforce for the market, and they'll be motivated, grateful and hyper-productive.

Develop an industry Management Training Scheme

Make it competitive, difficult and ambitious.

Have it run over three years. Provide a formal qualification at the end. Have its syllabus include financial management, project management, management skills such as influencing, negotiation, and decision making, and code. Get employers to subsidise attendance and allow delegates to attend week-long sessions, four times a year.

Radically raise our expectations of our suppliers

Suppliers to publishing are divided cleanly into two groups: those who know what an API is, and those who don't.

We must insist that our suppliers move beyond the 1980s, as a matter of urgency—because if they haven’t, it's costing us time and money. We simply cannot accept the fact that major businesses still build data workflows centred around the .csv format and exchange of spreadsheets, or that professional typesetters can't automate catalogue production from ONIX in InDesign. We cannot tolerate the inflated costs of external "experts" who are fleecing us because we don't know how to build things ourselves.

Most of all, we can’t tolerate that our industry does not have the competence to recognise this.

Update our Occupational Standards

Revise the otherwise excellent Book and Journal Publishing National Occupational Standards to include technical skills. They don’t go far enough in ensuring a technically skilled workforce.

Harness the evident discontent amongst junior publishers

People are angry about having to prove themselves in menial roles.

Let’s harness the power of this sentiment and give people a platform on which to discuss change, without fear of retribution by their management. A StackExchange site for publishing? Meet-ups, like we do in tech?

There’s a groundswell of opinion on this and we should find ways to raise our voices coherently.

Make us competent, make us proud, make us flourish

I want to work in a flourishing industry known for its competence, kindness, innovation and creativity. As time goes on, our current expectations of what junior roles should be is going to look and feel more and more Stone Age—with radical implications for our future viability.

Originally written for and published by The FutureBook, October 2015