Buyouts and layoffs don’t scare John Crawford, the recently appointed managing director of Plant Operations at the Government Printing Office.
When Crawford joined the GPO in 1966, with about eight years of experience in the trade and no high school diploma, the agency employed about 8,500 people. As technology advanced, the journeyman bookbinder steadily rose through ranks and the workforce shrank to about 1,900.
“If you don’t change, you get left behind,” Crawford said, climbing the stairs at the GPO’s North Capitol Street Northwest headquarters after inspecting a state-of-the-art digital press churning out glossy voter guides for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. “I’m a change person. A lot of people are afraid of change — I’m not.” As a foreman for the pamphlets section, he once oversaw 320 people on the fourth floor. Today, there are fewer than 320 people between the GPO’s press and bindery operations, and Crawford is in charge of about 800 GPO employees working throughout the seven-floor annex.
“When I started the trade, it was like dinosaurs,” Crawford said with a chuckle.
Raised in a family of eight children in Southeast Washington, Crawford lost his father when he was 10 and by 16 was a “wild kid.” When he was kicked out of high school in 1958, he took a printing job to earn his keep while staying at his sister’s place.
Crawford joined the GPO at age 25, taking a pay cut in the move from the private to public sector. It was around that time his wife, Lynda, gave birth to their first child, and Crawford thought the government agency would provide more opportunities for career advancement. He is the third generation of his family to work at the GPO.
Figuring an education would help him get ahead, Crawford earned a GED certificate through the Montgomery County Board of Education and enrolled in night classes at Montgomery College in Maryland.
“I didn’t get a degree, but I was educating myself,” he said. In addition to English and business classes, he was taking on bigger assignments at the GPO, including a special assignment producing secure test forms for the U.S. Air Force. “I applied for jobs and was attractive on paper, plus I demonstrated that I could take on any challenge.”
Crawford asked to help with congressional products, carefully measuring the dimensions of official voting cards and stationary printed with members’ letterheads. Forty years later, watching one of his employees punch those numbers into a digital cutting machine, which will spit out stacks of neatly sliced cards, Crawford is not nostalgic. Instead, he sounds proud.
“This is really neat, watch this,” he commanded as the stainless steel arms of the press slid the paper toward the blade. The machine, purchased on the taxpayer dime to complete jobs for Capitol Hill, the FBI and other government agencies, is accurate to 0.001 of an inch. “It’s a no brainer,” Crawford said as the machine swept the waste from the workspace. “We have one guy doing it, where we used to maybe have two or maybe three.”
In 1972, Crawford was promoted to his first management position and was responsible for coordinating and overseeing the production of President Richard M. Nixon’s inaugural materials. Since then, he’s overseen everything from production of the Congressional Record to implementation of new passport printings. The president’s budget used to take his team “at least three weeks. And now I get the whole thing done in a matter of three days.”
As equipment has been upgraded, he’s had to trim back his workforce. In 1993, he cut the number of supervisors in the bindery from 45 to 25.
“Here’s how I look at it,” he said, looking out over a sparsely populated plant floor, “if I’m going to tell that worker to put out more, then I don’t need any of the overhead to be wandering around here fat and happy.”
Crawford likes to compare himself to legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. He officiated basketball and football for 14 years, coached kids for 35 years and is full of stories about the young baseball players he’s mentored. He treated his players and his workforce with “tough love.”
Many of his current employees came from commercial printing shops, but they’ve got the “newest, latest and greatest” in the public sector, Crawford boasts. The machines must comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, and be fast and efficient enough to earn the GPO print jobs from government agencies. During the congressional appropriations process, Public Printer Davita Vance-Cooks must make the case for upgrades.
“When we ask for anything to buy, it’s always return on investment. What is your return on investment?” Crawford said. A new press arriving in the summer should pay for itself in four years, he said, adding, “after that it’s all profit for the taxpayer.”
Crawford turned 73 on April 26, but he’s got no plans to slow down. When the managing director gig opened up earlier this year, he told his wife he wanted to take on the promotion. Her response: “Most people your age are winding down, but you’re gearing up.”
A few weeks later, management approached him and he happily accepted, assuring them he could handle any changes on the horizon.
“I’ll be here when you go,” he said.