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The printing process has three stagesprepress, press, and binding or finishing. Prepress workers prepare material for printing presses. They perform a variety of tasks involved with transforming text and pictures into finished pages and making printing plates of the pages.
As personal computers recently have come into more widespread use, advances in computer software and printing technology have begun to greatly change prepress work. Much of the typesetting and page layout work formerly done by prepress workers is increasingly done by customers on their computers. Customers are able to use their computers to send material to printers that looks more and more like the desired finished product. This change, called "desktop publishing," poses new challenges for the printing industry. Instead of receiving simple typed text from customers, prepress workers increasingly get the material on a computer disk, and instead of relying on prepress workers to suggest a format, customers are increasingly likely to have already settled on one by experimenting on their personal computers. The printing industry is rapidly moving towards complete "digital imaging," by which customers' material received on computer disks is converted directly into printing plates. Other aspects of prepress work experiencing innovation include digital color page makeup systems, electronic page layout systems, and off-press color proofing systems.
As electronic imaging becomes more prevalent, the use of film in printing will decline. Film, however, is still often the most economical and efficient data storage and retrieval medium currently in use. Today, electronic imaging is limited to more advanced printing shops, but as costs decline and quality improves, the process will become the method of choice in the industry.
Typesetting and page layout have been greatly affected by technological changes. Today, composition work is done with computers and "cold type" technology. The old "hot type" method of text compositionwhich used molten lead to create individual letters, paragraphs, and full pages of textis nearly extinct. Cold type, which is any of a variety of methods that create type without molten lead, has traditionally used "phototypesetting" to ready text and pictures for printing. Although this method has many variations, all use photography to create positive images on paper. The images are assembled into page format and rephotographed to create film negatives from which the actual printing plates are made. However, newer cold type methods are coming into increasing use; these automate the photography or make printing plates directly from material in a computer.
In one common form of phototypesetting, text is entered into a computer programmed to hyphenate, space, and create columns of text. Keyboarding of text may be done by typesetters or data entry clerks at the printing establishment or, increasingly, by the author before the job is sent out for composition. The computer stores the text on magnetic tape, floppy disk, or hard disk. The magnetically coded text is then transferred to a typesetting machine which uses photography, a cathode-ray tube, or a laser to create an image on typesetting paper or film. Once it has been developed, the paper or film is sent to a lithographer who makes the actual printing plate.
In another type of phototypesetting, a computer produces text on special paper in the desired format. In newspapers, for example, text is printed in long columns. Workers called paste up artists cut and arrange the columns of text and illustrations onto a special illustration board called a "mechanical." The special paper adheres easily to the board, yet is designed to allow easy removal and positioning. Once the text is arranged in final form, the board is sent to the camera department where a photographic negative used to create printing plates is produced. In small shops, job printers may be responsible for composition and page layout, reading proof for errors and clarity, correcting mistakes, and printing.
The most advanced method of typesetting, called "electronic pagination," is in growing commercial use. Electronic pagination system operators use a keyboard to enter and select the size and style of type, the column width, and appropriate spacing, and to store it in the computer. The computer then displays and arranges columns of type on a screen that resembles a television screen. An entire newspaper pagecomplete with artwork and graphicscan be made up on the screen exactly as it will appear in print. Operators transmit the pages for production into film and then into plates, or directly into plates, eliminating the role of paste up artists.
New technologies are also affecting the roles of other composition workers. Improvements in desktop publishing software will allow customers to do more typesetting directly. Laser printers read text from computer memory and then "beam" it directly onto film, paper, or plates, bypassing the slower photographic process traditionally used.
After the material has been arranged and typeset, in traditional processes that use photography it is passed on to workers who further prepare it for the presses. Camera operators are generally classified as line camera operators, halftone operators, or color separation photographers. Line camera operators start the process of making a lithographic plate by photographing and developing film negatives or positives of the material to be printed. They adjust light and expose film for a specified length of time, and then develop film in a series of chemical baths. They may load unexposed film in machines that automatically develop and fix the image.
Normal continuous-tone photographs cannot be reproduced by most printing processes, so halftone camera operators separate the photograph into pictures that are made up of tiny dots, which can be reproduced. Color separation photography is more complex. In this process, camera operators produce four-color separation negatives from a continuous-tone color print or transparency which is being reproduced.
More of this separation work will be done electronically in the future on scanners. Scanner operators use computerized equipment to create film negatives or positives of photographs or art. The computer controls the color separation or the scanning process, correcting for mistakes, or compensating for deficiencies in the original color print or transparency. Operators review all work to determine if corrections to the original are necessary and adjust the equipment accordingly. They then use a densitometer to measure the density of the colored areas, and adjust the scanner to obtain the best results. An original color photograph or transparency is scanned for each color to be printed. Each scan produces a dotted image, or halftone, of the original in one of four primary colorsyellow, magenta, cyan, and black. The images are used to produce printing plates that print each of these colors, one at a time. The printing is done with primary process color inks which are transparent, creating "secondary" color combinations of red, green, blue, and black. These secondary colors can be combined to produce all the colors and hues of the original photograph. The computer controls the color separation or the scanning process, correcting for mistakes or compensating for deficiencies in the original color print or transparency.
Scanners which can perform color correction during the color separation procedure are rapidly replacing lithographic dot etchers, who retouch film negatives or positives by sharpening or reshaping images. They do the work by hand, using chemicals, dyes, and special tools. Dot etchers must know the characteristics of all types of paper and must produce fine shades of color. Like camera operators, they are usually assigned to only one phase of the work, and may have job titles such as dot etcher, retoucher, or letterer.
New technology is also eliminating the need for strippers, who cut the film to required size and arrange and tape the negatives onto "flats"or layout sheets used by platemakers to make press plates. When completed, flats resemble large film negatives of the text in its final form. In large printing establishments like newspapers, arrangement is done automatically.
Platemakers use a photographic process to make printing plates. The film assembly or flat is placed on top of a thin metal plate treated with a light-sensitive chemical. Exposure to ultraviolet light activates the chemical in those parts not protected by the film's dark areas. The plate is then developed in a special solution that removes the unexposed nonimage area, exposing bare metal. The chemical on areas of the plate exposed to the light hardens and becomes water repellent. The hardened parts of the plate form the text.
A growing number of printing plants use lasers to directly convert electronic data to plates without any use of film. Entering, storing, and retrieving information from computer-aided equipment requires technical skills. In addition to operating and maintaining the equipment, lithographic platemakers must make sure that plates meet quality standards.
During the printing process, the plate is first covered with a thin coat of water. The water adheres only to the bare metal nonimage areas, and is repelled by the hardened areas that were exposed to light. Next, the plate comes in contact with a rubber roller covered with an oil-based ink. Because oil and water do not mix, the ink is repelled by the water-coated area and sticks to the hardened areas. The ink covering the hardened text is transferred to paper.
Technological changes will continue in the prepress area as hand work is automated. Although computers will perform a wider variety of tasks, printing will still involve text composition, page layout, and plate making, so printing will still require prepress workers. Computer skills will be increasingly important to prepress workers. These workers will, however, need to demonstrate a desire and an ability to benefit from the frequent retraining that rapidly changing technology necessitates.
Prepress workers usually work in clean, air-conditioned areas with little noise. Some workers, such as typesetters and compositors, may develop eyestrain from working in front of a video display terminal, as well as musculoskeletal problems, such as backaches. Lithographic artists and strippers may find working with fine detail tiring to the eyes. Platemakers, who work with toxic chemicals, face the hazard of skin irritations. Stress may be an important factor as workers are often subject to the pressures of shorter and shorter deadlines and tighter and tighter work schedules.
Prepress employees generally work an 8-hour day. Some workersparticularly those employed by newspaperswork night shifts, weekends, and holidays.
Prepress workers held about 169,000 jobs in 1994. Employment was distributed as follows:
Prepress precision workers Strippers, printing 31,000 Paste-up workers 22,000 Electronic pagination systems workers 18,000 Camera operators 15,000 Job printers 14,000 Platematers 13,000 Compositors and typesetters 11,000 Photoengravers 7,000 All other precision printing workers 13,000 Prepress machine operators Typesetting and composing machine operators 20,000 Photoengraving and lithographic machine operators 5,000Most prepress jobs were found in firms that handle commercial or business printing and in newspaper plants. Commercial printing firms print newspaper inserts, catalogs, pamphlets, and advertisements, while business form establishments print material such as sales receipts and paper used in computers. Additional jobs are found in printing trade service firms and "in-plant" operations. Establishments in printing trade services typically perform custom compositing, platemaking, and related prepress services.
The printing and publishing industry is one of the most geographically dispersed in the United States, and prepress jobs are found throughout the country. However, job prospects may be best in large printing centers such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Dallas.
The length of training required for prepress jobs varies by occupation. Some, such as typesetting, can be learned in only a few months, but they are the most likely to be automated. Others, such as stripping, require years of experience to master. Nevertheless, even workers in these occupations should expect to receive intensive retraining. Workers often start as helpers who are selected for on-the-job training programs once they demonstrate their reliability and interest in learning the job. They begin instruction with an experienced craft worker and advance based upon their demonstrated mastery of skills at each level of instruction. All workers should expect to be retrained from time to time to handle new, improved equipment.
Apprenticeship is another way to become a skilled prepress worker, although few apprenticeships have been offered in recent years. Apprenticeship programs emphasize a specific craftsuch as camera operator, stripper, lithographic etcher, scanner operator, or platemakerbut apprentices are introduced to all phases of printing.
Generally, most employers prefer to hire high school graduates who possess good communication skills, both oral and written. Prepress workers need to be able to deal courteously with people because in small shops they may take customer orders. They may also need to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and compute ratios to estimate job costs. Persons interested in working for firms that use advanced printing technology need to know the basics of electronics and computers. Mathematical skills are also essential for operating many of the software packages used to run modern, computerized prepress equipment.
Prepress workers need manual dexterity, and they must be able to pay attention to detail and work independently. Good eyesight, including visual acuity, depth perception, field of view, color vision, and the ability to focus quickly, is an asset. Artistic ability is often a plus. Employers seek persons who are even-tempered and adaptable, important qualities for workers who often must meet deadlines and learn how to operate new equipment.
Formal graphic arts programs, offered by community and junior colleges and some 4-year colleges, also introduce persons to the industry. These programs provide job-related training, and enrolling in one demonstrates an interest in the graphic arts, which may impress an employer favorably. Bachelor's degree programs in graphic arts are generally intended for students who may eventually move into management positions, and 2-year associate degree programs are designed to train skilled workers.
Courses in various aspects of printing are also available at vocational-technical institutes, industry-sponsored update and retraining programs, and private trade and technical schools.
As workers gain experience, they advance to positions with greater responsibility. Some move into supervisory positions.
Employment of prepress workers is expected to decline through the year 2005. Demand for printed material should grow rapidly spurred by rising levels of personal income, increasing school enrollments, and higher levels of educational attainment. However, increased use of computers in typesetting and page layout should eliminate many prepress jobs.
New technologies are also expected to spur demand for printed materials by expanding markets, allowing advertising dollars currently allotted to nonprint media, such as television, to be spent on direct mail. Work previously requiring a week or more can now be completed in a few days. Much faster turnaround time will permit printers to compete with nonprint media for time-sensitive business, providing advertisers with specialty advertisements used to target specific market segments, for example.
Technological advances will have a varying effect on employment among the prepress occupations. Employment of electronic pagination system operators is expected to much grow much faster than average, reflecting the increasing proportion of page layout and design that will be performed using computers. In contrast, prepress machine operators are expected to decline sharply as the work that these workers perform manually is increasingly automated. Occupations that are expected to experience moderate declines as hand work becomes automated include paste-up workers, job printers, precision compositors and typesetters, photoengravers, platemakers, and camera operators.
Job prospects also will vary by industry, most notably for compositors and typesetters. Changes in technology have shifted many employment opportunities away from the traditional printing plants into advertising agencies, public relations firms, and large corporations. Many companies are turning to in-house typesetting or "desktop publishing" due to the advent of inexpensive personal computers with graphic capabilities. Corporations are finding it more profitable to print their own newsletters and other reports than to send them out to trade shops. In addition, press shops themselves have responded to desktop publishers' needs by sending their own staff into the field to help customers prepare a disk that will live up to the customer's expectations.
Compositors and typesetters should find competition extremely keen in the newspaper industry, currently their largest employer. Computerized equipment that allows reporters and editors to specify type and style and to format pages at a desktop computer terminal has already eliminated many typesetting and composition jobs, and more are certain to disappear in the years ahead.
Many new jobs for prepress workers are expected to emerge in commercial printing establishments. New equipment should reduce the time needed to complete a printing job, and allow commercial printers to make inroads into new markets that require fast turnaround. Because small establishments predominate, commercial printing should provide the best opportunities for inexperienced workers looking to gain a good background in all facets of printing.
Opportunities for prepress workers should also be good in the printing trade services industry. Despite the fact that companies may have their own typesetting and printing capabilities, they usually turn to professionals in printing trade services if quality and time are of the essence.
Most employers prefer to hire experienced prepress workers. However, among persons without experience, opportunities should be best for those with a computer background who have completed postsecondary programs in printing technology. Many employers prefer graduates of these programs because the comprehensive training they receive helps them learn the printing process and adapt more rapidly to new processes and techniques.
Wage rates for prepress workers vary according to occupation, level of experience and training, location and size of the firm, and whether they are union members. According to limited data available, the median earnings of full-time workers were $549 a week in 1994 for lithographers and photoengravers and $389 a week for typesetters and compositors.
Of the prepress workers who were unionized, scanner operators earned an hourly wage of $21.88 in 1995, and strippers earned $17.57 per hour, according to the Graphic Communications International Union, the principal union for prepress workers.
Prepress workers use artistic skills in their work. These skills are also essential for sign painters, jewelers, decorators, engravers, and graphic artists. Other workers who operate machines equipped with keyboards like typesetters include clerk-typists, computer terminal system operators, keypunch operators, and telegraphic-typewriter operators.
Details about apprenticeship and other training programs may be obtained from local employers such as newspapers and printing shops or from local offices of the State employment service.
For information on careers and training in printing and the graphic arts, write to:
PIA-PrintED Accreditation Program for the Graphic Arts, 100 Daingerfield Rd., Alexandria, VA 22314.
Education Council of the Graphic Arts Industry, 1899 Preston White Dr., Reston, VA 22091-4326.
Graphic Communications International Union, 1900 L St. NW., Washington, DC 20212.
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