Prepress workers handle the first stage in the printing process. This initial phase of production involves multiple steps, including creating pages from text and graphics and making printing plates. With the introduction of desktop publishing and other computer technology, the prepress process has changed dramatically over the past decade. Computerized processes have replaced many of the traditional processes, eliminating a number of prepress jobs but opening up new opportunities as well.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 141,000 people are employed in prepress jobs. Approximately 42,000 of these jobs are with commercial printing companies. Other jobs are with prepress service bureaus (companies that deal exclusively with prepress work) and newspapers.
Prepress Worker Career History
The history of modern printing began with the invention of movable type in the 15th century. For several centuries before that, books had been printed from carved wooden blocks or laboriously copied by hand. These painstaking methods of production were so expensive that books were chained to prevent theft.
In the 1440s, Johannes Gutenberg invented a form of metal type that could be used over and over. The first known book to be printed with this movable type was a Bible in 1455—the now-famous Gutenberg Bible. Gutenberg’s revolutionary new type greatly reduced the time and cost involved in printing, and books soon became plentiful.
Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant to the United States, invented the Linotype machine in 1886. Linotype allowed the typesetter to set type from a keyboard that used a mechanical device to set letters in place. Before this, printers were setting type by hand, one letter at a time, picking up each letter individually from their typecases as they had been doing for more than 400 years. At about the same time, Tolbert Lanston invented the Monotype machine, which also had a keyboard but set the type as individual letters. These inventions allowed compositors to set type much faster and more efficiently.
With these machines, newspapers advanced from the small two-page weeklies of the 1700s to the huge editions of today’s metropolitan dailies. The volume of other periodicals, advertisements, books, and other printed matter also proliferated.
In the 1950s a new system called photocomposition was introduced into commercial typesetting operations. In this system typesetting machines used photographic images of letters, which were projected onto a photosensitive surface to compose pages. Instructions to the typesetting machine about which letters to project and where to project them were fed in through a punched paper or magnetic tape, which was, in turn, created by an operator at a keyboard.
Most recently typesetting has come into the home and office in the form of desktop publishing. This process has revolutionized the industry by enabling companies and individuals to do their own type composition and graphic design work.
Prepress Worker Job Description
Prepress work involves a variety of tasks, most of which are now computer-based. The prepress process is typically broken down into the following areas of responsibility: compositor and typesetter, paste-up worker, desktop publishing specialist, pre-flight technician, output technician, scanner operator, camera operator, lithographic artist, film stripper, and platemaker.
Compositors and typesetters are responsible for setting up and arranging type by hand or by computer into galleys for printing. This is done using “cold type” technology (as opposed to the old “hot type” method, which involved using molten lead to create letters and lines of text). A common method is phototypesetting, in which type is entered into a computer and output on photographic film or paper. Typesetting in its traditional sense requires a paste-up worker to then position illustrations and lay out columns of type. This manual process is quickly being phased out by desktop publishing.
Most often today, desktop publishing is the first step in the production process. The desktop publisher designs and lays out text and graphics on a personal computer according to the specifications of the job. This involves sizing text, setting column widths, and arranging copy with photos and other images. All elements of the piece are displayed on the computer screen and manipulated using a keyboard and mouse. In commercial printing plants, jobs tend to come from customers on computer disk, eliminating the need for initial desktop publishing work on the part of the printing company. (For more information, see the article Desktop Publishing Specialists)
The entire electronic file is reviewed by the pre-flight technician to ensure that all of its elements are properly formatted and set up. At small print shops—which account for the majority of the printing industry—a job printer is often the person in charge of typesetting, page layout, proofing copy, and fixing problems with files.
Once a file is ready, the output technician transmits it through an imagesetter onto paper, film, or directly to a plate. The latter method is called digital imaging, and it bypasses the film stage altogether. Direct-to-plate technology has been adopted by only a small percentage of printing companies nationwide, but it is expected to be universal within the next decade.
If a file is output onto paper or provided camera-ready, the camera operator photographs the material and develops film negatives, either by hand or by machine. Because the bulk of commercial printing today is done using lithography, most camera operators can also be called lithographic photographers.
Often it is necessary to make corrections, change or reshape images, or lighten or darken the film negatives. This is the job of the lithographic artist, who, depending on the area of specialty, might have the title dot etcher, retoucher, or letterer. This film retouching work is highly specialized and is all done by hand using chemicals, dyes, and special tools.
The film stripper is the person who cuts film negatives to the proper size and arranges them onto large sheets called flats. The pieces are taped into place so that they are in proper position for the plate to be made.
The platemaker, also called a lithographer because of the process used in most commercial plants, creates the printing plates. This is done using a photographic process. The film is laid on top of a thin metal plate treated with a light-sensitive chemical. It is exposed to ultraviolet light, which “burns” the positive image into the plate. Those areas are then chemically treated so that when ink is applied to the plate, it adheres to the images to be printed and is repelled by the non-printing areas.
Lithography work traditionally involved sketching designs on stone, clay, or glass. Some of these older methods are still used for specialized purposes, but the predominant method today is the one previously described, which is used in offset printing. In offset printing, a series of cylinders are used to transfer ink from the chemically treated plate onto a rubber cylinder (called a blanket), then onto the paper. The printing plate never touches the paper but is “offset” by the rubber blanket.
If photos and art are not provided electronically, the scanner operator scans them using a high-resolution drum or flatbed scanner. In the scanning process, the continuous color tone of the original image is interpreted electronically and converted into a combination of the four primary colors used in printing: cyan (blue), magenta, yellow, and black—commonly called CMYK. A screening process separates the image into the four colors, each of which is represented by a series of dots called a halftone. These halftones are recorded to film from which printing plates are made. During the printing process, ink applied to each of the plates combines on paper to recreate the color of the original image.
Prepress Worker Career Requirements
Educational requirements for prepress workers vary according to the area of responsibility, but all require at least a high school diploma, and most call for a strong command of computers.
Whereas prepress areas used to be typesetting and hand-composition operations run by people skilled in particular crafts, they are now predominantly computer-based. Workers are no longer quite as specialized and generally are competent in a variety of tasks. Thus, one of the most important criteria for prepress workers today is a solid base of computer knowledge, ideally in programs and processes related to graphic design and prepress work.
Young people interested in the field are advised to take courses in computer science, mathematics, and electronics.
The more traditional jobs, such as camera operator, film stripper, lithographic artist, and platemaker, require longer, more specialized preparation. This might involve an apprenticeship or a two-year associate’s degree. But these jobs now are on the decline as computerized processes replace them.
Postsecondary education is strongly encouraged for most prepress positions and a requirement for some jobs, including any managerial role. Community and junior colleges as well as four-year colleges and universities offer graphic arts programs. Postsecondary programs in printing technology are also available.
Any programs or courses that give you exposure to the printing field will be an asset. Courses in printing are often available at vocational-technical institutes and through printing trade associations.
Certification or Licensing
The National Council for Skill Standards in Graphic Communications has established a list of competencies for workers in the printing industry. To demonstrate their knowledge, operators can take examinations in composition, job engineering, image capture, and digital output. Applicants receive the expert digital imaging technician designation for each examination that they successfully complete. Applicants who complete all four examinations are awarded the designation, master digital imaging technician.
Prepress work requires strong communications skills, attention to detail, and the ability to perform well in a high-pressure, deadline-driven environment. Physically, you should have good manual dexterity, good eyesight, and overall visual perception. Artistic skill is an advantage in nearly any prepress job.
Exploring Prepress Worker Career
A summer job or internship doing basic word processing or desktop publishing is one way to get a feel for what prepress work involves. Such an opportunity could even be found through a temporary agency. Of course, you will need knowledge of computers and certain software.
You also can volunteer to do desktop publishing or design work for your school newspaper or yearbook. This would have the added benefit of exposing you to the actual printing process.
Most prepress work is in firms that do commercial or business printing and in newspaper plants. Other jobs are at companies that specialize in certain aspects of the prepress process, for example, platemaking or output-ting of film.
Because printing is so widespread, prepress jobs are available in almost any part of the country. However, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, prepress work is concentrated in large printing centers like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Washington, D.C.
Information on apprenticeships and training opportunities is available through state employment services and local chapters of printing industry associations.
If you wish to start working first and learn your skills on the job you should contact potential employers directly, especially if you want to work in a small nonunion print shop. Openings for trainee positions may be listed in newspaper want ads or with the state employment service. Trade school graduates may find jobs through their school’s placement office. And industry association offices often run job-listing services.
Some prepress work, such as typesetting, can be learned fairly quickly; other jobs, like film stripping or platemaking, take years to master. Workers often begin as assistants and move into on-the-job training programs. Entry-level workers are trained by more experienced workers and advance according to how quickly they learn and prove themselves.
In larger companies, prepress workers can move up the ranks to take on supervisory roles. Prepress and production work is also a good starting point for people who aim to become a customer service or sales representative for a printing company.
Pay rates vary for prepress workers, depending on their level of experience and responsibility, type of company, where they live, and whether or not they are union members. Prepress technicians and workers had median annual earnings of $32,840 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $19,430 to $52,800 or more. Mean earnings in commercial printing, the industry employing the largest number of prepress technicians and workers, were $34,820. Job printers had median annual salaries of $31,920 in 2005.
Generally, prepress workers work in clean, quiet settings away from the noise and activity of the pressroom. Prepress areas are usually air-conditioned and roomy. Desktop publishers and others who work in front of computer terminals can risk straining their eyes, as well as their backs and necks. Film stripping and other detail-oriented work also can be tiring to the eyes. The chemicals used in platemaking can irritate the skin.
An eight-hour day is typical for most prepress jobs, but frequently workers put in more than eight hours. Prepress jobs at newspapers and financial printers often call for weekend and evening hours.
Prepress Worker Career Outlook
Overall employment in the prepress portion of the printing industry is expected to decline through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. While it is anticipated that the demand for printed materials will increase, prepress work will not, mainly because of new innovations.
Almost all prepress operations are computerized, and many of the traditional jobs that involved highly skilled handwork—film strippers, paste-up workers, photoengravers, camera operators, and platemakers—are being phased out. The computer-oriented aspects of prepress work have replaced most of these tasks. Employment of desktop publishing specialists, however, is expected to grow faster than the average. Demand for preflight technicians will also be strong. And specialized computer skills will increasingly be needed to handle direct-to-plate and other new technology.
Given the increasing demand for rush print jobs, printing trade service companies should offer good opportunities for prepress workers. Larger companies and companies not equipped for specialized prepress work will continue to turn to these specialty shops to keep up with their workload.