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Printing Machine Operator Job Description, Career as a Printing Machine Operator, Salary, Employment

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

Education and Training: High school

Salary: Median—$14.38 per hour

Employment Outlook: Fair

Definition and Nature of the Work

Running the printing machine, or press, is the final stage of the printing process. In this process, the material to be printed is assembled, typeset, and transferred onto metal plates. These plates are placed on the press by the printing press operators. Their basic duties are preparing the press for printing and tending the press as it runs.

Press operators adjust the press for each new job—a process called "makeready." The operator must be sure the plates are mounted correctly and are level in the press. This step ensures that the inking will be even, resulting in a crisp, clear printed impression. In addition, the ink flow must be checked and adjusted during a run and for each new job. In small shops, operators must also oil, clean, and repair the press. In large shops, there are usually assistants to help load the press and clean up afterward.

Relief press operators work with letterpress printing, a printing process that is nearly extinct. In letterpress printing, the parts of the plate to be printed are raised from the surface, or are "in relief." The press and paper are big enough to print sixteen or thirty-two book pages at the same time.

A widely used printing process is called offset printing. Offset press operators work with smooth-surfaced plates instead of those with raised type. These plates are made photographically or directly from a computer. Offset printing is based on the principle that water and oil do not mix. The image areas of the plate are lined with grease, but the nonimage areas are kept wet with water. As the plate passes through the rollers, a greasy ink is fed in, which sticks to the greasy image areas but not to the water-treated nonimage areas. As printing occurs, offset press operators must regulate the flow of both the ink and the water very carefully. They must also feed paper through the press cylinders and adjust feed and tension controls.

Printing machine operators run web-fed presses to print newspapers. Many printing plants are now replacing these presses with computer-controlled presses. (© Annie Griffiths Belt/Corbis.)

Offset printing is very fast and economical. It is especially good for reproducing paintings and photographs as well as type on a wide variety of surfaces. Since 2000 the use of plateless, or nonimpact, printing has increased dramatically. This method includes digital, electrostatic, and ink-jet printing, which are used by quick and in-house printing shops.

There are different types of letterpress and offset presses. Some presses print a single color. Others print two or four colors at one time. Presses are either sheet-fed or web-fed. Paper is fed into the sheet-fed press in large sheets. Paper is fed into the web-fed press on rolls. In many plants, presses controlled by computers have been installed, cutting down the time involved for many printing jobs. Operators adjust the presses and correct problems from a control panel.

Education and Training Requirements

Most printing machine operators are trained on the job by working as assistants or helpers to skilled operators. Some seasoned printing press operators maintain that the best way to learn the trade is to serve a four-year apprenticeship. As an apprentice, individuals attend classes and work on the job, learning basic procedures and how to maintain and operate different presses. They may then specialize in one area of printing. The apprenticeship method is becoming less common, however, as vocational or technical schools and community and junior colleges offer programs in printing equipment operation.

Press operators need mechanical aptitude and mathematical skills. High school courses that offer good preparation for this trade are printing, physics, chemistry, mechanical arts, and electronics. New presses require knowledge of basic computer skills. Technology is advancing at a pace that requires even the most experienced printers to retrain quite often on different equipment and computer software.

Getting the Job

The best way to begin working in this field is to get an unskilled job at a printing shop. Apprentices are usually chosen from among the press operators' helpers. To locate local printing shops, consult the business pages of the telephone directory or search for nearby shops online. To get a job at a union shop, apply to the regional offices of the union or ask your local state employment office. Also, check the classified ads in your local newspapers.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Printing machine operators progress through standard steps as they gain experience and skill. A press operator's helper can become an assistant press operator on a single-color press and then advance to more complicated or multicolor presses. Head press operators and supervisors usually have many years of experience with different presses and jobs. Many expert press operators set up their own printing shops.

The outlook for skilled printing machine operators is fair. There were more than 191,000 printers and assistants employed in the United States in 2004. With the use of faster, computerized printing presses, the rise of printing-on-demand and electronic publishing, and the increased outsourcing of printing work to foreign countries, employment is expected to grow slower than average through the year 2014.

Working Conditions

Physical strength and stamina are important in this trade, since press operators are on their feet almost all day and move heavy loads of paper and plates. Letter-press operators may work in very noisy and poorly ventilated shops. Offset press operators usually work under better conditions in air-conditioned shops, although even offset presses can be noisy.

Operators of both kinds of presses work with oil, grease, ink, chemicals, and machinery. Good training, new safety devices, and the ability to make adjustments from a computer control panel have reduced the dangers of tending presses.

Press operators work closely with other employees in the shop—typesetters or compositors, artists, proofreaders, and layout workers, as well as office workers. They often work in continuous shifts of twelve hours, resulting in a forty-eight-hour work week. Overtime work is frequently available.

Earnings and Benefits

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly earnings of printing machine operators is $14.38; however, salaries vary depending on the location and size of the shop.

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

Graphic Communications International Union
1900 L St. NW
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 462-1400

Relatively few printing machine operators are union members. They typically receive paid vacations and holidays and other benefits from their employers, including retirement plans and medical insurance.

Additional topics

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