Printing Machine Operators
- Most printing machine operators are trained on the job.
- Those skilled in digital printing operations will have the
best job opportunities as more printing firms convert to this
printing process because of the rising demand for customized
- The expected retirements of skilled press operators will create
openings for workers with the proper training.
Printing machine operators, also known as press operators,
prepare, operate, and maintain the printing presses in a pressroom.
Duties of printing machine operators vary according to the type
of press they operate—offset lithography, gravure, flexography,
screen printing, letterpress, and digital. Offset lithography,
which transfers an inked impression from a rubber-covered cylinder
to paper or other material, is the dominant printing process.
With gravure, the recesses on an etched plate or cylinder are
inked and pressed to paper. Flexography is a form of rotary printing
in which ink is applied to a surface by a flexible rubber printing
plate with a raised image area. Use of flexography should increase
over the next decade, but letterpress, in which an inked, raised
surface is pressed against paper, remains in existence only as
specialty printing. In addition to the major printing processes,
plateless or nonimpact processes are coming into general use.
Plateless processes—including digital, electrostatic, and ink-jet
printing—are used for copying, duplicating, and document and specialty
printing, usually by quick and in-house printing shops, and increasingly
by commercial printers for short-run jobs and variable data printing.
To prepare presses for printing, machine operators install and
adjust the printing plate, adjust pressure, ink the presses, load
paper, and adjust the press to the paper size. Press operators
ensure that paper and ink meet specifications, and adjust 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. However, new technology becoming available skips these
steps and sends the files directly to the press.
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 tears
and the press stops, which can happen with some offset presses,
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 must regularly
pull sheets to check for any printing imperfections, though much
of this checking for quality is now being by done computers.
In most shops, press operators also perform preventive maintenance.
They oil and clean the presses and make minor repairs.
Machine operators’ jobs differ from one shop to another because
of differences in the kinds and sizes of presses. Small commercial
shops are operated by one person and tend to have relatively small
presses, which print only one or two colors at a time. 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 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 will soon have installed printing presses
with computers and sophisticated instruments to control press
operations, making it possible to set up for jobs in 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 or computer monitor, which
allows them to adjust the press electronically.
Operating a press can be physically and mentally demanding, and
sometimes tedious. Printing machine 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 press operators follow safe work practices. The threat of
accidents has decreased with newer computerized presses because
operators make most adjustments from a control panel. Many press
operators, particularly those who work for newspapers, work weekends,
nights, and holidays. They also may work overtime to meet deadlines.
|Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Although completion of a formal apprenticeship or a postsecondary
program in printing equipment operation continues to be the best
way to learn the trade, most printing machine operators are trained
on the job while they work as assistants or helpers to experienced
operators. Beginning press operators load, unload, and clean presses.
With time and training, they may move up to become fully qualified
press operators on the type of equipment on which they trained.
Some operators gain experience on many kinds of printing presses
during the course of their career.
Apprenticeships for press operators, once the dominant method
for preparing for this occupation, are becoming less prevalent.
When they are offered by the employer, they usually include on-the-job
instruction and some related classroom training or correspondence
school courses. Apprenticeships used to be for a fixed period
of time, but now completion is based on ability to demonstrate
In contrast, formal postsecondary programs in printing equipment
operation offered by technical and trade schools, community colleges,
and universities are growing in importance. Some postsecondary
school programs require 2 years of study and award an associate
degree. Postsecondary courses in printing are increasingly important
because they provide the theoretical and technical knowledge needed
to operate advanced equipment.
Persons who wish to become printing machine operators need mechanical
aptitude to make press adjustments and repairs. Oral and writing
skills also are required. Operators should possess the mathematical
skills necessary to compute percentages, weights, and measures,
and 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 printing machine operators. New presses now require
operators to possess basic computer skills. Even experienced operators
periodically receive retraining and skill updating. For example,
printing plants that change from sheet-fed offset presses to digital
presses have to retrain the entire press crew because skill requirements
for the two types of presses are different.
Printing machine operators may advance in pay and responsibility
by working on a more complex printing press. Through experience
and demonstrated ability, for example, a one-color sheet-fed press
operator may become a four-color sheet-fed press operator. Others
may advance to pressroom supervisor and become responsible for
an entire press crew. Press operators can also draw on their knowledge
of press operations to become cost estimators, providing estimates
of printing jobs to potential customers.
Printing machine operators held about 191,000 jobs in 2004. Nearly
half of all operator jobs were in the printing industry. Paper
manufacturers and newspaper publishers were also large employers.
Additional jobs were in the “in-plant” section of organizations
and businesses that do their own printing—such as banks, insurance
companies, government agencies, and universities.
The printing and newspaper publishing industries are two 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 Chicago, Los
Angeles–Long Beach, New York, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia,
Boston, and Washington, DC.
Employment of printing machine operators is expected to grow
more slowly than average through 2014 as the output of printed
materials is expected to keep going up, but increasing automation
of the printing industry and the outsourcing of production to
foreign countries will moderate the increase. Looming retirements
of printing machine operators and the need for workers trained
on increasingly computerized printing equipment will also create
many job openings over the next decade, particularly for those
persons who qualify for formal apprenticeship training or who
complete postsecondary training programs in printing.
Demand for books and magazines will increase as school enrollments
rise and information proliferates. Additional growth will also
come from the increasing ability of the printing industry to profitably
print shorter runs—smaller quantities—which should widen the market
for printed materials as production costs decline. However, small
printing jobs will increasingly be run on sophisticated high-speed
digital printing equipment that requires a more complex set of
operator skills, such as database management.
Demand for commercial printing also will continue to be driven
by increased expenditures for print advertising materials. 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 catalogs,
direct mail enclosures, newspaper inserts, and other kinds of
print advertising. Newspaper printing also will continue to provide
Employment will not grow in line with output, however, because
increased use of new computerized printing equipment will require
fewer operators. This will especially be true with the increasing
automation of the large printing presses used in the newspaper
industry. In addition, more companies are having their work printed
out of the country when time sensitivity of the material is not
an issue. Also, new business practices within the publishing industry,
such as printing-on-demand and electronic publishing, will cut
into the production of printed materials. Printing-on-demand refers
to the printing of materials as they are requested by customers,
in contrast to printing thousands of copies of a publication prior
to purchase, many of which are subsequently discarded.
Median hourly earnings of printing machine operators were $14.38
in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.73 and $18.83
an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $8.54, and the
highest 10 percent earned more than $23.06 an hour. Median hourly
earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of printing
machine operators in May 2004 were:
|Newspaper, periodical, book, and directory
|Converted paper product manufacturing
|Printing and related support activities
|Plastics product manufacturing
|Advertising and related services
The basic wage rate for a printing machine operator depends on
the geographic area in which the work is located and on the type
of press being run: pay varies by the complexity of the press
and its size. Workers covered by union contracts usually have
higher earnings in the newspaper industry.
Other workers who set up and operate production machinery include
machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic; bookbinders
and bindery workers; and various precision machine operators.
|Sources of Additional Information
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 Conference
of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, local affiliates
of Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation,
or local offices of the State employment service.
For general information about press operators, write to:
- Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood
of Teamsters, 1900 L St. NW., Washington, DC 20036-5007. Internet:
For information on careers and training in printing and the graphic
arts, write to:
- NPES The Association for Suppliers of Printing Publishing,
and Converting Technologies, 1899 Preston White Dr., Reston,
VA 20191-4367. Internet: http://www.npes.org/education/index.html
- Printing Industry of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation,
200 Deer Run Rd., Sewickley, PA 15143.
- Graphic Arts Education and Research Foundation, 1899 Preston
White Dr., Reston, VA 20191-5468. Internet: http://www.makeyourmark.org/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational
Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition