Printing Career Field Structure
Printing is one of the largest and most geographically diverse industries in North America. With annual sales of more than $200 billion, printing is one of the top manufacturing industries in the United States and makes up the largest industry in several states. The industry employs more than 1.3 million people.
There is scarcely a town of any size without some provision for printing, which gives young people entering the job market an array of choices. According to Graphic Comm Central, there are more than 80,000 printing establishments in the United States, and most are small- and medium-sized firms and print shops with fewer than 20 employees. The rest are large corporations, many with branches in several states.
No matter what a company’s size or specialty, however, the printing process is usually the same. It is a highly technical process that typically operates under tight deadlines. For example, newspaper printers must deliver papers daily and financial printers often must produce stock prospectuses overnight. Many large commercial printers run 24 hours a day to keep up with demand in their markets. Because of this deadline-driven environment, all of the jobs in the industry, from administrative positions to manual labor, call for team players who perform well in pressure situations.
“All of a printing company’s employees must work as a team and communicate every step of the way,” says Jim Reinhardt, a sales representative for Wicklander Printing Corporation in Chicago, Illinois. “If you prefer to work independently, this might not be the industry for you.”
The printing process typically begins with the printing sales representative, who identifies customers who have a need for printing services. The sales rep must convince the prospect that the company he or she represents is best qualified to do the job. In smaller companies, independent sales representatives, or brokers, may solicit clients. Brokering can be highly lucrative but tends to be limited to large cities where a range of print services is available.
Part of selling print is providing the prospective customer with an estimate of how much a job will cost. The sales representative requests this information from the estimator. The estimator evaluates all aspects of the job—quantity, size, type of paper and ink, number of colors, special folds, photo scans, and other details—and calculates as accurately as possible how much the job will cost and how long it will take. This part of the process is important because it establishes the financial basis for the entire print job. Estimating requires close attention to detail, confidence with numbers, a familiarity with all aspects of the printing process, and the ability to work well under pressure.
Once an initial price agreement is reached, the customer sends the job to the printing company and it goes into production. The production process breaks down into three major steps: prepress, press, and postpress (usually called binding or finishing).
The entire print job is overseen by the production manager or customer service representative, who works closely with the salesperson throughout the process. It is the production manager’s job to communicate with everyone involved and make sure things happen on time. Production management requires attention to detail, strong communication skills, and the ability to handle multiple tasks at once.
Although printing companies sometimes receive camera- ready art from their customers, most jobs are now submitted on a computer disk. This is why prepress areas have experienced such radical change in recent years. What used to be a typesetting and hand-composition operation run by people skilled in particular crafts is now predominantly computer-oriented. Prepress workers must be highly computer-literate and competent in a variety of tasks.
When a disk arrives from a customer, it first goes to the preflight technician, who checks the file to make sure all the elements are there and that there are no technical problems with it. If photos or illustrations are not supplied electronically, the scanner operator scans them and converts them into electronic images that are then integrated into the file. If color correction is needed, it is done at this stage.
Through a series of electronic processes, including trapping and imposition, the file is then recorded onto film, producing a film negative. If camera-ready art is involved, it must be photographed to produce negatives, which are then arranged by the stripper into a final film negative.
A proof is created from the film negative and reviewed by the customer. Once it is approved, the platemaker produces plates. This involves transferring the image onto sheets of metal and chemically treating the areas to be printed. During the printing process, that ink is then transferred from the printing plate to a rubber roller, which in turn lays the ink down on the paper.
Offset printing using lithography (described earlier) is currently the most common method of printing. Other methods include letterpress, gravure, flexography, and screen printing. Whatever the method, it is the job of the printing press operator to set up the press for the print run. This involves installing the plates, adjusting ink levels and other controls, and loading the paper. Once the press is running, the operator continues to monitor and adjust the controls to ensure quality and consistency.
Once off the press, the printed sheets go to the binding area for the finishing process. Depending on the job’s specifications, this may involve trimming, folding, gluing, and/or stitching. In binding, as in printing, technology has automated traditional methods that existed for hundreds of years. Many high-speed printing presses now have automatic folders, stitchers, and trimmers attached, delivering a finished product with virtually no manual work.