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Prepress Technicians and Workers

Significant Points
  • Most prepress technician jobs now require formal postsecondary graphic communications training in the various types of computer software used in digital imaging.
  • Employment is projected to decline as the increased use of computers in typesetting and page layout requires fewer prepress technicians.
Nature of the Work

The printing process has three stages—prepress, press, and binding or postpress. In small print shops, job printers are usually responsible for all three stages. They check proofs for errors and print clarity and correct mistakes, print the job, and attach each copy’s pages together. In most printing firms, however, each of the stages is the responsibility of a specialized group of workers. Prepress technicians and workers are responsible for the first stage, preparing the 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. Most customers today are able to provide printers with pages of material that look like the desired finished product they want printed and bound in volume. Using a process called “desktop publishing,” customers are increasingly using their own computers to do much of the typesetting and page layout work formerly done by designers on artboards. Much of this work is now done by desktop publishers or graphic designers with knowledge of publishing software. (Sections on desktop publishers and graphic designers appear elsewhere in the Handbook.) It is increasingly common for prepress technicians or other printing workers to receive files from the customer on a computer disk or submitted electronically via e-mail or “file transfer protocol”, known as “ftp”, that contains typeset material already laid out in pages.

Prepress work is now done with the use of digital imaging technology by prepress technicians known as “preflight technicians” or production coordinators. Using this technology, these technicians take the electronic files received from customers, check it for completeness, and format it into pages using electronic page layout systems. Even though the pages may already be laid out, they still may have to be formatted to fit the dimensions of the paper stock to be used. When color printing is required, the technicians use digital color page-makeup systems to electronically produce an image of the printed pages, then use off-press color proofing systems to print a copy, or “proof,” of the pages as they will appear when printed. The technician then has the proofs delivered or mailed to the customer for a final check. Once the customer gives the “OK to print,” technicians use laser “imagesetters” to expose digital images of the pages directly onto thin aluminum printing plates.

Platemakers for a long time used a photographic process to make printing plates. The flat, a layout sheet onto which a negative has been attached, was placed on top of a thin metal plate coated with a light-sensitive resin. Exposure to ultraviolet light activated the chemical in parts of the plate not protected by the film’s dark areas. The plate was then developed in a solution that removes the unexposed nonimage area, exposing bare metal. The chemical on areas of the plate exposed to the light hardened and became water repellent. The hardened parts of the plate form the text and images to be printed. Now, the printing industry has largely moved to technology known as “direct-to-plate”, by which the prepress technicians send the data directly to a plating system, by-passing the need for stripping film onto a flat.

During the printing process, the plate is first covered with a thin coat of water. The water adheres only to the bare metal nonimage 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.

Working Conditions

Prepress technicians and workers usually work in clean, air-conditioned areas with little noise. Some workers may develop eyestrain from working in front of a video display terminal, or musculoskeletal problems such as backaches. Those platemakers who still 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.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Digital imaging technology has largely replaced cold type print technology. Instead of painstakingly taping pieces of photographic negatives to flats, today’s prepress technicians use computer software skills to electronically modify and lay out the material; in some cases, the first time the material appears on paper is when the final product rolls off the printing press. Traditionally, prepress technicians and workers started as helpers and were trained on the job, with some jobs requiring years of experience performing the detailed handwork to become skillful enough to perform even difficult tasks quickly. Today, persons seeking to enter prepress technician jobs require formal postsecondary graphic communications training in the various types of computer software used in digital imaging.

Postsecondary graphic communications programs are available from a variety of sources. For beginners, 2-year associate degree programs offered by community and junior colleges and technical schools, and some 4-year bachelor’s degree programs in graphic design colleges teach the latest prepress skills and allow students to practice applying them. However, bachelor’s programs usually are intended for students who may eventually move into management positions in printing or design jobs. Community and junior colleges, 4-year colleges and universities, vocational-technical institutes, industry-sponsored update and retraining programs, and private trade and technical schools all also offer prepress-related courses for workers who do not wish to enroll in a degree program. Many workers with experience in other printing jobs take a few college graphic communications courses to upgrade their skills and qualify for prepress jobs. Prepress training designed to train skilled workers already employed in the printing industry also is offered through unions in the printing industry. Many employers view individuals with a combination of experience in the printing industry and formal training in the new digital technology as the best candidates for prepress jobs. The experience of these applicants in printing press operator or other jobs provides them with an understanding of how printing plants operate, familiarizes them with basic prepress functions, and demonstrates their reliability and interest in advancing in the industry.

Employers prefer workers with good communication skills, both oral and written, for prepress jobs. Prepress technicians and workers should be able to deal courteously with people because, when prepress problems arise, they sometimes have to contact the customer to resolve them. Also, in small shops, they may take customer orders. Persons interested in working for firms using advanced printing technology need to know the basics of electronics and computers. Mathematical skills also are essential for operating many of the software packages used to run modern, computerized prepress equipment. At times, prepress personnel may have to perform computations in order to estimate job costs.

Prepress technicians and 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, also are needed assets. Artistic ability is often a plus. Employers also seek persons who possess an even temperament and an ability to adapt, important qualities for workers who often must meet deadlines and learn how to use new software or operate new equipment.


Prepress technicians and workers overall held about 141,000 jobs in 2004. Of these, approximately 63,000 were employed as job printers; the remainder was employed as prepress technicians and other prepress workers. Most prepress jobs are found in the printing industry, while newspaper publishing employs the second largest number of prepress technicians and workers.

The printing and publishing industries are two of the most geographically dispersed in the United States, and prepress jobs are found throughout the country. However, jobs are concentrated in large metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Los Angeles–Long Beach, New York City, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC.

Job Outlook

Overall employment of prepress technicians and workers is expected to decline through 2014. 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. But the use of computers and publishing software—often by the clients of the printing company—will result in rising productivity of prepress technicians.

Computer software now allows office workers to specify text typeface and style, and to format pages at a desktop computer terminal, shifting many prepress functions away from the traditional printing plants into advertising and public relations agencies, graphic design firms, and large corporations. Many companies are turning to in-house desktop publishing as page layout and graphic design capabilities of computer software have improved and become less expensive and more user-friendly. Some firms are finding it less costly to prepare their own newsletters and other reports than to send them out to trade shops. At newspapers, writers and editors also are doing more composition using publishing software. Rapid growth in the use of desktop publishing software already has eliminated most prepress typesetting and composition technician jobs associated with the older technologies, such as cold-type. However, opportunities will be favorable for prepress technicians with strong computer skills, such as preflight technicians, who are employed to check materials prepared by clients and adapt it for printing.

In order to compete in the desktop publishing environment, commercial printing companies are adding desktop publishing and electronic prepress work to the list of services they provide. Electronic prepress technicians, digital proofers, platemakers, and graphic designers are using new equipment and ever-changing software to design and layout publications and complete their printing more quickly. The increasing range of services offered by printing companies using new digital technologies mean that opportunities in prepress work will be best for those with computer backgrounds who have completed postsecondary programs in printing technology or graphic communications. Workers with this background will be better able to adapt to the continuing evolution of publishing and printing technology.


Median hourly earnings of prepress technicians and workers were $15.30 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.69 and $20.01 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.06, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $24.82 an hour.

For job printers, median hourly earnings were $15.41 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.00 and $20.04 an hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.57, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $24.05 an hour.

Median hourly earnings in commercial printing, the industry employing the largest number of prepress technicians and workers, were $15.91 in May 2004, while the figure for these workers in the newspaper, periodical, and book publishing industry was $14.22 an hour. For job printers, median hourly earnings in commercial printing in May 2004 were $15.67, while in the newspaper, periodical, and book publishing industry median hourly earnings were $15.63.

Wage rates for prepress technicians and workers vary according to occupation, level of experience, training, location, size of firm, and union membership status.

Related Occupations

Prepress technicians and workers use artistic skills in their work. These skills also are essential for artists and related workers, graphic designers, and desktop publishers. Moreover, many of the skills used in Web site design also are employed in prepress technology.

In addition to typesetters, other workers who operate machines equipped with keyboards include data entry and information processing workers. Prepress technicians’ work also is tied in closely with that of printing machine operators, including job printers.

Sources of Additional Information

Details about 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:

  • Graphic Arts Education and Research Foundation, 1899 Preston White Dr., Reston, VA 20191-5468. Internet: http://www.makeyourmark.org/
  • Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, 1900 L St. NW., Washington, DC 20036-5007. Internet: http://www.gciu.org/
  • Printing Industries of America/Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, 200 Deer Run Rd., Sewickley, PA 15143-2324.
  • Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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