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Lithographic Worker Job Description, Career as a Lithographic Worker, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: High school

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Poor

Definition and Nature of the Work

Lithographic workers make and prepare metal plates used to print books, magazines, labels, and other items. In lithography, traditionally known as offset printing, pages are photographed and transferred onto metal plates, and then the images are printed onto paper. With advances in technology, the use of film in creating printing plates has decreased. Since images can be generated by computers and plates can be made directly from computer disks, many of the roles in the field of lithography are changing.

Lithographic work done with film begins with camera operators, who photograph the typeset material and develop film negatives or positives. There are two kinds of black-and-white camera operators: the line camera operator and the halftone camera operator. Line camera operators photograph line drawings and type. Halftone camera operators photograph pictures similar to those reproduced in this book. These photographs contain a range of gray tones and shading, and they must be shot through special screens to reproduce the different tones.

A lithographic worker checks the color plates at a graphic company before the images are printed onto paper. (© Martha Tabor/Working Images Photographs. Reproduced by permission.)

The color separation camera operator photographs color pictures using filters to separate four colors from the print or the transparency being reproduced. Modern scanner operators are beginning to take on this separation work. Scanner operators create film negatives or positives using computerized equipment that allows them to control the color separation as well as correct color deficiencies or mistakes.

The negatives produced by camera operators are handed off to lithographic artists. Working entirely by hand, the artists use chemical dyes and special tools to correct and improve the quality of the negatives. A lithographic artist usually specializes in one or two areas of this process and is referred to as a dot-etcher, a retoucher, or a letterer. The printing process continues with the stripper, who assembles the negatives of the type and pictures in their final position on layout sheets, or "flats." Technological advances allow scanner operators to do the work of lithographic artists and strippers.

The next step in the lithographic process involves the platemaker, who positions the negatives or flats on a metal plate coated with a light-sensitive solution. The platemaker exposes the negative and the plate to high-intensity lights. Then the plate is treated with chemicals to bring out the image areas by removing the unexposed, nonimage areas. The plate is covered with a thin coat of water that adheres only to the bare metallic nonimage area. Next, the plate is covered with oil-based ink applied with a rubber roller. Because water and oil do not mix, the ink is repelled by the water-coated area and sticks to the image area. The ink-covered image area can then be transferred to paper.

Within this process, photoengravers prepare plates used in the reproduction of pictures, illustrations, and photographs. Photoengravers specialize in different steps such as routing and finishing. Routers cut away any metal on the plates that has not been removed by the chemical treatment, and finishers touch up the shapes, darkening or lightening parts of the complex images as necessary.

Occupations for workers in printing plants are changing as more and more plants use lasers to convert electronic data directly to the plates.

Education and Training Requirements

A career in lithography usually requires a high school education. High school courses such as printing, art, drafting, chemistry, and photography are helpful. Community or junior colleges offer graphic arts programs for occupations such as photoengraving. Technical institutes offer programs in printing technology.

Many lithographers are trained on the job, especially in small shops. Although few apprenticeship programs have been offered since 2000, they are another way to become a skilled lithographic worker.

Lithographers need mechanical aptitude, and they must pay close attention to detail. Mathematical skills are essential, and knowledge of the basics of electronics and computers is becoming increasingly important, especially in desktop publishing and graphic art. Artistic ability is also an asset.

Getting the Job

Interested individuals can find out about apprenticeship programs from local employers, school vocational counselors, and local union offices. The Graphic Arts Technical Foundation (GATF), a division of the Graphic Arts Information Network (GAIN), offers scholarships to young people interested in this field.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Skilled workers who keep up with new lithographic technology should be able to advance in their careers. Some will choose to work up to the job of supervisor or cost estimator. Production and plant supervisors need to be familiar with most of the machines and procedures of the trade. Some skilled workers with business aptitude may want to open their own shops. Courses in business and economics are important for these types of careers.

Jobs are expected to decline for all occupations through the year 2014. The demand for printed material should continue to increase, but widespread use of computers and automation will change or eliminate many lithographic jobs.

Working Conditions

Because lithographic equipment must be stored in clean, air-conditioned plants, these shops are pleasant places in which to work. Lithographic shops are not as noisy as letterpress shops, and the work is challenging but not overly strenuous. Lithographic workers usually work thirty-three to forty hours per week, depending on the contract between their union and the management. Stress can be a factor in this occupation because workers are often subject to tight deadlines and work schedules.

Where to Go for More Information

Communications Workers of America
501 Third St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2797
(202) 434-1100

Graphic Arts Information Network
200 Deer Run Rd.
Sewickley, PA 15143-2600
(412) 741-6860
(800) 910-4283

National Association of Litho Clubs
P.O. Box 6190
Shallotte, NC 28470
(910) 575-0399

Earnings and Benefits

Earnings vary according to geographic location and the lithographer's experience and skills. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly pay rate for experienced lithographers is about $16; however, unionized workers earn between $19 and $23 per hour. Full-time workers usually receive benefits such as health insurance, paid holidays and vacations, and retirement plans.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production