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Printing press operators prepare, operate, and maintain the printing presses in a pressroom. Duties of press operators vary according to the type of press they operateoffset, gravure, flexography, screen printing, or letterpress. Offset is the dominant printing process and is expected to remain so into the next century. Gravure and flexography should increase in use, but letterpress should continue being phased out. In addition to the major printing processes, plateless or nonimpact processes are coming into general use. Plateless processesincluding electronic, electrostatic, and ink-jet printingare used for copying, duplicating, and document and specialty printing, generally by quick and in-house printing shops.
To prepare presses for printing, press operators install and adjust the printing plate, mix fountain solution, adjust pressure, ink the presses, load paper, and adjust the press to the paper size. Press operators check that paper and ink meet specifications, and adjust control margins and the flow of ink to the inking rollers accordingly. They then feed paper through the press cylinders and adjust feed and tension controls.
While printing presses are running, press operators monitor their operation and keep the paper feeders well stocked. They make adjustments to correct uneven ink distribution, speed, and temperatures in the drying chamber, if the press has one. If paper jams or tearswhich can happen with some offset pressesand the press stops, operators quickly correct the problem to minimize downtime. Similarly, operators working with other high-speed presses constantly look for problems, making quick corrections to avoid expensive losses of paper and ink. Throughout the run, operators also occasionally pull sheets to check for any printing imperfections.
In many shops, press operators perform preventive maintenance. They oil and clean the presses and make minor repairs to keep them running smoothly.
Press operators' jobs differ from one shop to another because of differences in the kinds and sizes of presses. Small commercial shops tend to have relatively small presses which print only one or two colors at a time and are operated by one person. Operators who work with large presses have assistants and helpers. Large newspaper, magazine, and book printers use giant "in-line web" presses that require a crew of several press operators and press assistants. These presses are fed paper in big rolls, called "webs," up to 50 inches or more in width. Presses print the paper on both sides; trim, assemble, score, and fold the pages; and count the finished sections as they come off the press.
Most plants have or soon will have installed printing presses that have computers and sophisticated instruments to control press operations, making it possible to set up for jobs in much less time. Computers allow press operators to perform many of their tasks electronically. With this equipment, press operators monitor the printing process on a control panel that allows them to adjust the press electronically by pushing buttons.
Operating a press can be physically and mentally demanding, and sometimes tedious. Press operators are on their feet most of the time. Often, operators work under pressure to meet deadlines. Most printing presses are capable of high printing speeds, and adjustments must be made quickly to avoid waste. Pressrooms are noisy, and workers in certain areas wear ear protectors. Working with press machinery can be hazardous, but accidents can be avoided when safe work practices are observed. The danger of accidents is much less with newer computerized presses because operators make most adjustments from a control panel. Many press operators work evening, night, and overtime shifts.
Press operators held about 244,000 jobs in 1994. Employment was distributed as follows:
Printing press machine setters and operators 113,000 Offset lithographic press operators 79,000 Screen printing machine setters and setup operators 26,000 Letterpress operators 14,000 All other printing press setters and set-up operators 13,000Most jobs were in newspaper plants or in firms that handle commercial or business printing. Commercial printing firms print newspaper inserts, catalogs, pamphlets, and the advertisements found in your mailbox, and business form establishments print items such as sales receipts and paper used in computers. Additional jobs were in the "in-plant" section of organizations and businesses that do their own printingamong them, banks, insurance companies, and government agencies.
The printing and publishing industry is one of the most geographically dispersed in the United States, and press operators can find jobs throughout the country. However, jobs are concentrated in large printing centers such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Dallas.
Although completion of a formal apprenticeship or a post secondary program in printing equipment operation continue to be the best way to learn the trade, most printing press operators are trained informally on the job working as assistants or helpers to experienced operators. Beginning press operators load, unload, and clean presses. With time, they move up to operating one-color sheet-fed presses and eventually advance to multicolor presses. Operators are likely to gain experience on many kinds of printing presses during the course of their career.
Apprenticeship, once the dominant method of preparing for this occupation, is becoming less prevalent with the growing importance of formal post secondary programs in printing equipment operation offered by technical and trade schools and community and junior colleges. Apprenticeships for press operators in commercial shops take 4 years. In addition to on-the-job instruction, apprenticeships include related classroom or correspondence school courses. In contrast, although some post secondary school programs require 2 years of study and award an associate degree, most programs can be completed in 1 year or less. Post secondary courses in printing are increasingly important because they provide the theoretical knowledge needed to operate advanced equipment.
Persons who wish to become printing press operators need mechanical aptitude to make press adjustments and repairs and an ability to visualize color in order to work on color presses. Oral and writing skills also are required. Operators should be able to compute percentages, weights, and measures, and should possess adequate mathematical skills to calculate the amount of ink and paper needed to do a job. Because of technical developments in the printing industry, courses in chemistry, electronics, color theory, and physics are helpful.
Technological changes have had a tremendous effect on the skills needed by press operators. New presses require basic computer skills. Printing plants that change from sheet-fed offset presses to web-offset presses have to retrain the entire press crew because the skill requirements for the two types of presses are different. Web-offset presses, with their faster operating speeds, require faster decisions, monitoring of more variables, and greater physical effort. Even experienced operators periodically receive retraining and skill updating. In the future, workers are expected to need to retrain several times during their career.
Press operators may advance in pay and responsibility by taking a job working on a more complex printing press. For example, a one-color sheet-fed press operator may, through experience and demonstrated ability, become a four-color sheet-fed press operator. Others may advance to pressroom supervisor and become responsible for the work of the entire press crew.
Persons seeking jobs as printing press operators will face keen competition from experienced operators and prepress workers who have been displaced by new technology, particularly those who have completed retraining programs. Opportunities to become printing press operators are likely to be best for persons who qualify for formal apprenticeship training or who complete postsecondary training programs.
Employment of press operators is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Although demand for printed materials will grow, employment growth will be slowed by the increasing use of new, more efficient computerized printing presses. However, employment growth will vary among various press operator jobs. Employment of offset, gravure, and flexographic operators will increase, while employment of letterpress operators will decline sharply. Most job openings will result from the need to replace operators who retire or leave the occupation.
Most new jobs will result from expansion of the printing industry as demand for printed material increases in response to demographic trends, U.S. expansion into foreign markets, and growing use of direct mail by advertisers. Demand for books and magazines will increase as school enrollments rise, and as substantial growth in the middle-aged and older population spurs adult education and leisure reading. Additional growth should stem from increasing foreign demand for domestic trade publications, professional and scientific works, and mass-market books such as paperbacks.
Much of the growth in commercial printing will be spurred by increased expenditures for print advertising materials to be mailed directly to prospective customers. New market research techniques are leading advertisers to increase spending on messages targeted to specific audiences and should continue to require the printing of a wide variety of newspaper inserts, catalogs, direct mail enclosures, and other kinds of print advertising.
Other printing, such as newspapers, books, and periodicals, will also provide jobs. Experienced press operators will fill most of these jobs because many employers are under severe pressure to meet deadlines and have limited time to train new employees.
The basic wage rate for a press operator depends on the type of press being run and the area of the country in which the work is located. Median weekly earnings of press operators who worked full time were about $432 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $307 and $605 a week. The lowest 10 percent earned $239 or less a week, while the highest 10 percent earned over $787 a week.
Fewer than 1 out of 5 press operators belonged to a union.
Other workers who set up and operate production machinery include papermaking machine operators, shoemaking machine operators, bindery machine operators, and various precision machine operators.
Details about apprenticeships and other training opportunities may be obtained from local employers such as newspapers and printing shops, local offices of the Graphic Communications International Union, local affiliates of Printing Industries of America, or local offices of the State employment service.
For general information about press operators, write to:
Graphic Communications International Union, 1900 L St. NW., Washington, DC 20036.
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.
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