Printing press operators and printing press operator assistants prepare, operate, and maintain printing presses. Their principal duties include installing and adjusting printing plates, loading and feeding paper, mixing inks and controlling ink flow, and ensuring the quality of the final printed piece. There are approximately 191,000 printing press operators in the United States. They are mostly employed by newspaper plants and commercial and business printers.
Printing Press Operator and Assistant Career History
The forerunners of today’s modern printing presses were developed in Germany in the 15th century. They made use of the new concept of movable type, an invention generally credited to Johannes Gutenberg. Before Gutenberg’s time, most books were copied by hand or printed from carved wooden blocks. Movable type used separate pieces of metal that could be easily set in place, locked into a form for printing, and then used again for another job.
The first presses consisted of two flat surfaces. Once set in place, the type was inked with a roller, and a sheet of paper was pressed against the type with a lever. Two people working together could print about 300 pages a day.
In the early 19th century, Friedrich Konig, another German, developed the first cylinder press. With a cylinder press, the paper is mounted on a large cylinder that is rolled over a flat printing surface.
The first rotary press was developed in the United States in 1865 by William Bullock. On this kind of press, the inked surface is on a revolving cylinder called a plate cylinder. The plate cylinder acts like a roller and prints onto a continuous sheet of paper (called a web) coming off a giant roll.
The speed and economy of the web press was improved by the discovery of offset printing in the early 20th century. In this process, the raised metal type used in earlier processes was substituted with a flexible plate that could be easily attached to the plate cylinder. The ink is transferred from the 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.
Offset printing uses the process of lithography, in which the plate is chemically treated so that ink sticks only to the parts that are to be printed and is repelled by the non-print areas.
Offset lithography is the most common form of printing today and is used on both web-fed and sheet-fed presses. Web-fed presses are used for newspapers and other large-volume, lower-cost runs. The fastest web presses today can print about 150,000 complete newspapers in an hour. Sheet-fed presses, which print on single sheets of paper rather than a continuous roll, are used for smaller, higher-quality jobs.
Other forms of printing are gravure (in which depressions on an etched plate are inked and pressed to paper), flexography (a form of rotary printing using flexible rubber plates with raised image areas and fast-drying inks), and letterpress (the most traditional method, in which a plate with raised, inked images is pressed against paper).
Printing Press Operator and Assistant Job Description
The duties of press operators and their assistants vary according to the size of the printing plant in which they work. Generally, they are involved in all aspects of making the presses ready for a job and monitoring and operating the presses during the print run. Because most presses now are computerized, the work of press operators involves both electronic and manual processes.
In small shops, press operators usually handle all of the tasks associated with running a press, including cleaning and oiling the parts and making minor repairs. In larger shops, press operators are aided by assistants who handle most maintenance and cleanup tasks.
Once the press has been inspected and the printing plate arrives from the platemaker, the “makeready” process begins. In this stage, the operators mount the plates into place on the printing surface or cylinder. They mix and match the ink, fill the ink fountains, and adjust the ink flow and dampening systems. They also load the paper, adjust the press to the paper size, feed the paper through the cylinders and, on a web press, adjust the tension controls. When this is done, a proof sheet is run off for the customer’s review.
When the proof has been approved and final adjustments have been made, the press run begins. During the run, press operators constantly check the quality of the printed sheets and make any necessary adjustments. They look to see that the print is clear and properly positioned and that ink is not offsetting (blotting) onto other sheets. If the job involves color, they make sure that the colors line up properly with the images they are assigned to (registration). Operators also monitor the chemical properties of the ink and correct temperatures in the drying chamber, if the press has one.
On a web press, the feeding and tension mechanisms must be continually monitored. If the paper tears or jams, it must be rethreaded. As a roll of paper runs out, a new one must be spliced onto the old one. According to Careers in Graphic Communications (Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, 1998), some web presses today can print up to 50,000 feet an hour. At this rate, the press might run through a giant roll of paper every half hour. In large web printing plants, it takes an entire crew of specialized operators to oversee the process.
Most printing plants now have computerized printing presses equipped with sophisticated instrumentation. Press operators work at a control panel that monitors the printing processes and can adjust each variable automatically.
Printing Press Operator and Assistant Career Requirements
The minimum educational requirement for printing press operators and assistants is a high school diploma. Students interested in this field should take courses that offer an introduction to printing and color theory, as well as chemistry, computer science, electronics, mathematics, and physics—any course that develops mechanical and mathematical aptitude.
Traditionally, press operators learned their craft through apprenticeship programs ranging from four to five years. Apprenticeships are still available, but they are being phased out by postsecondary programs in printing equipment operation offered by technical and trade schools and community and junior colleges. Information on apprenticeships is often available through state employment services and local chapters of printing industry associations. Additionally, many press operators and assistants still receive informal on-the-job training after they are hired by a printer.
Computer training is also essential to be successful in the printing industry today. With today’s rapid advances in technology, “students need all the computer knowledge they can get,” advises John Smotherman, press operator and shift supervisor at Busch and Schmidt Company in Broadview, Illinois.
Certification or Licensing
The National Council for Skill Standards in Graphic Communications has established a list of competencies—what an operator should know and be able to do—for the expert level of performance. Skill standards are available for electronic imaging, sheetfed and web offset press, flexographic press, and finishing and distribution. Operators can take an examination in flexographic press operation, sheet fed press operation, or web press operation to receive the designation of national council certified operator.
Strong communication skills, both verbal and written, are a must for press operators and assistants. They also must be able to work well as a team, both with each other and with others in the printing company. Any miscommunication during the printing process can be costly if it means re-running a job or any part of it. Working well under pressure is another requirement because most print jobs run on tight deadlines.
Exploring Printing Press Operator and Assistant Career
High school is a good time to begin exploring the occupation of printing press operator. Some schools offer print shop classes, which provide the most direct exposure to this work. Working on the high school newspaper or yearbook is another way to gain a familiarity with the printing process. A delivery job with a print shop or a visit to a local printing plant will offer you the chance to see presses in action and get a feel for the environment in which press operators work. You also might consider a part-time, temporary, or summer job as a cleanup worker or press feeder in a printing plant.
There are approximately 191,000 press operators employed in the United States. The bulk of these operators are with newspapers and commercial and business printers. Companies range from small print shops, where one or two press operators handle everything, to large corporations that employ teams of press operators to work around the clock.
Other press operator jobs are with in-plant operations, that is, in companies and organizations that do their own printing in-house.
Because printing is so geographically diverse, press operator jobs are available in almost any city or town in the country. However, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, press work is concentrated in large printing centers like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D.C.
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.
John Smotherman notes that many young people entering the field start out in a part-time position while still in school. “I think students should pursue all the classroom education they can, but many intricacies of the printing process, like how certain inks and papers work together, need to be learned through experience,” he says.
Most printing press operators, even those with some training, begin their careers doing entry-level work, such as loading, unloading, and cleaning the presses. In large print shops, the line of promotion is usually as follows: press helper, press assistant, press operator, press opera-tor-in-charge, press room supervisor, superintendent.
Press operators can advance in salary and responsibility level by learning to work more complex printing equipment, for example by moving from a one-color press to a four-color press. Printing press operators should be prepared to continue their training and education throughout their careers. As printing companies upgrade their equipment and buy new, more computerized presses, retraining will be essential.
Press operators who are interested in other aspects of the printing business also may find advancement opportunities elsewhere in their company. Those with business savvy may be successful in establishing their own print shops.
Pay rates vary for press operators, depending on their level of experience and responsibility, type of company, where they live, and whether or not they are union members. Median annual earnings of press operators were $30,730 in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL). Salaries ranged from less than $18,450 to $49,870 or more. The USDL reports the following annual mean earnings for printing press operators by industry: printing and related support activities, $33,550; converted paper product manufacturing, $34,220; and advertising and related services, $27,560.
Pressrooms are well ventilated, well lit, and humidity controlled. They are also noisy. Often press operators must wear ear protectors. Press work can be physically strenuous and requires a lot of standing. Press operators also have considerable contact with ink and cleaning fluids that can cause skin and eye irritation. Working around large machines can be hazardous, so press operators must constantly observe good safety habits.
An eight-hour day is typical for most press operators, but some work longer hours. Smaller plants generally have only a day shift, but many larger plants and newspaper printers run around the clock. At these plants, like in hospitals and factories, press operator shifts are broken into day, afternoon/evening, and “graveyard” hours.
Printing Press Operator and Assistant Career Outlook
The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment of press operators will grow more slowly than the average through 2014. An increased demand for printed materials—advertising, direct mail pieces, computer software packaging, books, and magazines—will be offset by the use of larger, more efficient machines. Additionally, new business practices such as printing-on-demand (where materials are printed in smaller amounts as they are requested by customers instead of being printed in large runs that may not be used) and electronic publishing (which is the publication of materials on the Internet or through other electronic methods of dissemination) will also limit opportunities for workers in this field.
Newcomers to the field are likely to encounter stiff competition from experienced workers or workers who have completed retraining programs to update their skills. Opportunities are expected to be greatest for students who have completed formal apprenticeships or postsecondary training programs.