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Printing Press Operators

Printing press operators prepare and operate the printing presses in a press-room. Before starting the press, press operators set it up and adjust it to insure that the printing impressions will be distinct and uniform. Press operators first insert and lock type setups or plates into the press bed and tighten the locking attachment with a wrench. The operators then level the pressplates by placing pieces of paper that are exactly the right thickness underneath low areas of the plates. Press operators also adjust control margins and the flow of ink to the inking roller, feed paper through the press' rollers, and adjust feed controls. In some shops, they oil and clean the presses and make minor repairs. Press operators who work with large presses have assistants and helpers.

Press operators' jobs differ from one shop to another because of differences in the kinds and sizes of presses. Small commercial shops generally have relatively simple manual presses, whereas large newspaper, magazine, and book printers use giant 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. Workers print the paper on both sides; cut, assemble, and fold the pages; and count the finished sections as they come off the press.

Many modern plants have installed printing presses that use computers and sophisticated instrumentation to control press operations. With this equipment, the press operator monitors a control panel that detects problems. To adjust the press, the operator pushes the proper button on the control panel. Press operators are generally designated according to the type of press they operate: Letterpress, gravure, offset, or flexography.

Working Conditions

Operating a press can be physically demanding. Press operators are on their feet most of the time. Web offset is capable of high printing speeds, and adjustments must be made quickly to avoid waste. Pressrooms are noisy, and workers in certain areas frequently wear ear protectors. Press operators are subject to hazards when working near machinery. Often, they work under pressure to meet deadlines. Many press operators work evening and night shifts.


Press operators held about 242,000 jobs in 1990, distributed as follows:

Printing press machine operators and tenders...........112,320

Offset lithographic press setters and setup operators.. 94,640

Letterpress setters and setup operators................ 22,880

All other.............................................. 18,720

Most jobs were in newspaper plants or in firms that handle commercial or career printing. Commercial printing firms print newspaper inserts, catalogs, pamphlets, and the advertisements found in your mailbox, while career form establishments print items such as sales receipts and paper use in computers. Additional jobs were in the "in-plant" section of organizations and careeres that do their own printing--among them, banks, insurance companies, and government agencies.

Printing and publishing is one of the most geographically dispersed industries 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, D.C. and Dallas.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Press operators learn their trade through apprenticeship or while on the job. The length and content of training depend largely on the kind of press used in the plant. Most press operators are trained to operate more than one press, but specialize in a particular area of printing such as lithography, letterpress, or gravure.

Apprenticeship, once the dominant method of preparing for this occupation, is becoming less prevalent as formal programs of retraining and skills updating for experienced operators take on greater importance. Nonetheless, 2 out of 5 persons training to be printing press operators are in apprenticeship programs, according to a recent estimate. The apprenticeship period in commercial shops is 4 years for press operators. In addition to on-the-job instruction, the apprenticeship includes related classroom or correspondence school courses. Courses in printing provide a good background. Because of technical developments in the printing industry, courses in chemistry, electronics, color theory, and physics are helpful. Postsecondary education is increasingly important because of the theoretical knowledge needed to operate advanced equipment. Mechanical aptitude is important in making press adjustments and repairs. An ability to visualize color is essential for work on color presses.

Technological changes have had a tremendous effect on the skills needed by press operators. For example, printing plants which change from sheet-fed offset presses to web- offset presses have to retrain their entire press crew because the skill requirements for the two types of presses are very different. Web-offset presses, with their faster operating speeds, require faster decisions, monitoring of more variables, and greater physical effort.

Press operators may advance in pay and responsibility by taking a job working on a more complex printing press. For example, a two-color sheet-fed press operator may become a four-color sheet-fed press operator. Others may advance to press operator-in- charge and be responsible for the work of the entire press crew.

Job Outlook

Employment of press operators is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations through the year 2000 because of anticipated growth in the demand for printed materials. Increased use of color producing presses will contribute to job growth because this technology is more labor intensive than other printing technologies. In general, however, productivity improvements centering around faster and more efficient web-offset presses will permit the rapidly growing demand for printed materials to be met with a very moderate rise in the number of offset press operators, while jobs for letterpress operators, will continue to disappear. Technological breakthroughs--the application of microprocessors to printing and binding equipment, for example--could further reduce labor requirements in the years ahead. Most opportunities for printing press operators will reflect the need to replace experienced workers who leave the occupation.

Apprenticeship training is more likely to be required of individuals entering this occupation than other printing occupations. They will face stiff competition for jobs from experienced workers and workers who have completed retraining programs. Earnings

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. The basic rate for two-color sheet-fed press operators was $17.66 an hour in 1990; for four-color sheet-fed press operators $18.78 an hour. Related Occupations

Other workers who set up and operate production machinery are papermaking machine operators, shoemaking machine operators, bindery machine operators, and precision machine operators.

Sources of Additional Information

Details about apprenticeships and other training opportunities may be obtained from local newspapers and printing shops, local offices of the Graphic Communications International Union, 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, D.C. 20036.

Education Council of the Graphic Arts Industry, 4615 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh, PA. 15213.


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