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Printing Machine Operators

Significant Points
  • 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 print jobs.
  • The expected retirements of skilled press operators will create openings for workers with the proper training.
Nature of the Work

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.

Working Conditions

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 competencies.

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.

Job Outlook

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 jobs.

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 publishers $16.46
Converted paper product manufacturing 15.72
Printing and related support activities 15.16
Plastics product manufacturing 13.76
Advertising and related services 12.68

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.

Related Occupations

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: http://www.gciu.org/

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/

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07 Edition

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