Prepress Workers

Significant Points

  • Most workers train on-the-job; some complete formal graphics arts programs or other postsecondary programs in printing technology.
  • Increased use of computers in typesetting and page layout has greatly changed the nature of work and may eliminate many prepress jobs.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

The printing process has three stages—prepress, press, and binding or postpress. 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.

Advances in computer software and printing technology continue to change prepress work. Customers, as well as prepress workers, use their computers to produce material that looks like the desired finished product. Customers, using their own computers, increasingly do much of the typesetting and page layout work formerly done by prepress workers. This process, called "desktop publishing," poses new challenges for the printing industry. Instead of receiving simple typed text from customers, prepress workers get the material on a computer disk. Because of this, customers are increasingly likely to have already settled on a format on their own, rather than relying on suggestions from prepress workers. Furthermore, the printing industry is rapidly moving toward complete "digital imaging," by which customers’ material received on computer disks is converted directly into printing plates. Other innovations in prepress work are digital color page makeup systems, electronic page layout systems, and off-press color proofing systems.

Typesetting and page layouts have also been affected by technological changes. The old "hot type" method of text composition—which used molten lead to create individual letters, paragraphs, and full pages of text—is nearly extinct. Today, composition work is done with computers and "cold type" technology. Cold type, which is any of a variety of methods creating 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 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 becoming more common. These automate the photography or make printing plates directly from electronic files.

In one common form of phototypesetting, text is entered into a computer programmed to hyphenate, space, and create columns of text. Typesetters or data entry clerks may do keyboarding of text at the printing establishment or, increasingly, authors do this work before the job is sent out for composition. The 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.

Desktop publishing specialists 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 resembling a television screen. An entire newspaper, catalog, or book page, complete with artwork and graphics, can 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. Preflight technicians edit the work of the desktop publishing specialists and ensure the overall quality of the finished product before it is delivered to the customer. In small shops, job printers may be responsible for composition and page layout, reading proofs for errors and clarity, correcting mistakes, and printing.

New technologies also affect the roles of other composition workers. Improvements in desktop publishing software allow customers to do more of their own typesetting. "Imagesetters" read text from computer memory and then "beam" it directly onto film, paper, or plates, bypassing the slower photographic process traditionally used.

With traditional photographic processes, the material is arranged and typeset, and then passed on to workers who further prepare it for the presses. Camera operators are usually 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 exposed film in machines that automatically develop and fix the image. The use of film in printing will decline, as electronic imaging becomes more prevalent. With decreased costs and improved quality, electronic imaging has become the method of choice in the industry.

The litographic printing process requires that images be made up of tiny dots coming together to form a picture. Photographs cannot be printed without them. When normal "continuous-tone" photographs need to be reproduced, halftone camera operators separate the photograph into pictures containing the dots. Color separation photography is more complex. In this process, camera operators produce four-color separation negatives from a continuous-tone color print or transparency.

Most of this separation work is done electronically on scanners. Scanner operators use computerized equipment to create film negatives or positives of photographs or art. The computer controls the color separation of the scanning process, and with the help of the operator, corrects for mistakes, or compensates for deficiencies in the original color print or transparency. Each scan produces a dotted image, or halftone, of the original in one of four primary printing colors—yellow, magenta, cyan, and black. The images are used to produce printing plates that print each of these colors, with transparent colored inks, one at a time. These produce "secondary" color combinations of red, green, blue, and black which can be combined to produce the colors and hues of the original photograph.

Scanners that 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 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 lessening the need for film strippers, who cut the film to the 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 such as 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 coated with a light-sensitive resin. Exposure to ultraviolet light activates the chemical in parts not protected by the film’s dark areas. The plate is then developed in a solution that removes the unexposed non-image 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 require 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 non-image 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 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.

Although computers perform a wider variety of tasks, printing still involves text composition, page layout, and plate making, so printing will still require prepress workers. As computer skills become increasingly important, these workers will need to demonstrate a desire and an ability to benefit from the frequent retraining required by rapidly changing technology.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

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, or musculoskeletal problems such as backaches. Lithographic artists and film strippers may find working with fine detail tiring to the eyes. Platemakers, who work with toxic chemicals, face the hazard of skin irritations. Workers are often subject to stress and the pressures of short deadlines and tight work schedules.

Prepress employees usually work an 8-hour day. Some workers—particularly those employed by newspapers—work night shifts, weekends, and holidays.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Prepress workers held about 135,000 jobs in 1998. Employment was distributed as follows:

Prepress precision workers

Desktop publishing specialists 26,000
Film strippers, printing 23,000
Job printers 17,000
Platemakers 15,000
Compositors and typesetters 14,000
Camera operators 9,200
Paste-up workers 9,000
Photoengravers 2,700
All other precision printing workers 17,000

Prepress machine operators

Typesetting and composing machine operators 13,000
Photoengraving and lithographic machine operators 6,800

Most 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. A large number of jobs are also 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 metropolitan cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Dallas.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Most prepress workers train on the job; the length of training varies by occupation. Some skills, such as typesetting, can be learned in a few months, but they are the most likely to be automated in the future. Other skills, such as stripping (image assembly), require years of experience to master. However, these workers should also expect to receive intensive retraining.

Workers often start as helpers who are selected for on-the-job training programs after demonstrating their reliability and interest in the occupation. They begin with instruction from an experienced craft worker and advance based on their demonstrated mastery of skills at each level. All workers should expect to be retrained from time to time to handle new, improved equipment. As workers gain experience, they advance to positions with greater responsibility. Some move into supervisory positions.

Apprenticeship is another way to become a skilled prepress worker, although few apprenticeships have been offered in recent years. Apprenticeship programs emphasize a specific craft—such as camera operator, film stripper, lithographic etcher, scanner operator, or platemaker—but apprentices are introduced to all phases of printing.

Usually, most employers prefer to hire high school graduates who possess good communication skills, both oral and written. Prepress workers should be able to deal courteously with people, because in small shops they may take customer orders. They may also add, subtract, multiply, divide, and compute ratios to estimate job costs. Persons interested in working for firms using 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 good 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, are also assets. Artistic ability is often a plus. Employers also 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, are a good way to learn about the industry. These programs provide job-related training, which will help when seeking full-time employment. Bachelor’s degree programs in graphic arts are usually 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 may advance to positions with greater responsibility. Some move into supervisory positions.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Overall employment of prepress workers is expected to decline through 2008. Demand for printed material should continue to grow, spurred by rising levels of personal income, increasing school enrollments, higher levels of educational attainment, and expanding markets. However, increased use of computers in desktop publishing should eliminate many prepress jobs.

Technological advances will have a varying effect on employment among the prepress occupations. Employment of desktop publishing specialists is expected to grow much faster than average. This reflects the increasing proportion of page layout and design that will be performed using computers. In contrast, a decline in prepress machine operators is expected as the duties these workers perform manually become increasingly automated. Paste-up, composition and typesetting, photoengraving, platemaking, film stripping, and camera operator occupations are expected to experience declines as handwork becomes automated.

Job prospects also will vary by industry. 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, as personal computers with elaborate graphic capabilities have become common. 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 an electronic product that will live up to the customer’s expectations once it has been printed.

Compositors and typesetters should find competition extremely keen in the newspaper industry. Computerized equipment allowing 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; more may 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 who want to gain a good background in all facets of printing.

Most employers prefer to hire experienced prepress workers. Among persons without experience, however, opportunities should be best for those with computer backgrounds 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.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Wage rates for prepress workers vary according to occupation, level of experience, training, location, and size of the firm, and whether they are union members. The following tabulation shows the range of median hourly earnings of workers in various prepress occupations for 1998.

Film strippers, printing $15.53
All other printing workers, precision 14.63
Desktop publishing specialists 14.00
Platemakers 13.75
Photoengravers 13.67
Camera operators 11.72
Job printers 11.58
Photoengraving and lithographic machine operators and tendors 11.52
Typesetting and composing machine operators and tendors 11.08
Compositors and typesetters, precision 10.85
Paste-up workers 9.53

Of the unionized prepress workers, scanner operators earned an hourly wage of $23.20 in 1998, and film strippers earned $19.45 per hour, according to the Graphic Communications International Union, the principal union for prepress workers.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Prepress workers use artistic skills in their work. These skills are also essential for sign painters,jewelers, decorators, engravers, and graphic artists. In addition to typesetters, other workers who operate machines equipped with keyboards include typists and data entry keyers.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

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—Printing Industries of America, Inc., 100 Daingerfield Rd., Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet: http://www.printing.org
  • Graphic Communications International Union, 1900 L St. NW., Washington, DC 20036. Internet: http://www.gciu.org
  • The Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, 200 Deer Run Rd., Sewickley, PA 15143. Internet: http://www.gatf.org

An industry employing prepress workers that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Printing and publishing

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