Prepress Technicians and Workers

There are about over 107,000 prepress technicians and workers in the United States. Job growth projections indicate a sharp decline of 13% over the next decade due in part to the increasingly sophisticated and easy to use software programs that allow novices to layout and typeset pages at a near-professional level of quality. In addition, as more and more businesses turn to the Internet as a primary means of advertising their goods and products or educating the public and as more consumers turn to the Internet for information and comparison shopping, the need for hard copy printed material is minimized. However, printers will continue to produce newspapers, magazines, marketing materials, and other printed goods. Employees who have earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, have experience, and are comfortable with current software programs will have less difficulty finding work.

In most cases, prepress technician job applicants should have some postsecondary graphic communications education. This training should involve instruction in a variety of digital imaging software. Prepress technicians format and correct layout and then prepare printers. Offset plates, thin metal sheets holding the printable text and graphics, are used to transfer the image to print. Printing plates are created by a complex photographic process that adheres water-repellent images onto the metal using ultraviolet light and chemicals. After plates have been prepared, prepress technicians and press operators review a test sheet for errors. Color jobs can require a number of plates. However, the latest computerized printing technology bypasses plates altogether.

Newer “direct-to-plate” technology allows technicians to deliver data directly to plates, thus avoiding photographic interference and creating an electronic image of the pages to be printed. Preflight technicians review graphics, job specifications, and design using electronic files or drawings to ensure that nothing has been left out. The corrected proof is emailed or carried to the client for approval. With approval, the next step involves laser image setters that expose digital images onto printing plates or send them to a digital press directly.
Most print shops are clean, well organized, well lit, and climate controlled. Noise is not excessive. Good eyesight or corrective glasses are necessary given the close visual work. Eyestrain, headache, muscular ache, and repetitive motion disorders are common. Tight deadlines can cause stress.

Most prepress employees work a standard 40-hour work week. Newspaper employees may be given night shifts and weekend work. About 15% of the work force is comprised of temporary or part time employees. Look for new hires with some formal training, as well as previous printing work experience, up-to-date technology competency, and attention to detail.

In the past, prepress workers started as apprentices; this is true to some degree today. More complex aspects of the job can require several years of experience. However, a two-year associate degree earned at a community or technical college is preferred. Some press workers earn a bachelor’s degree in graphic design with the intention of ascending to a supervisory or managerial position.

In addition to some training and competency with computer software programs, employees need to be clear communicators, both verbally and in writing. People skills are necessary for dealing with clients, especially when printing problems occur. Basic math skills are also necessary to estimate job costs or set certain equipment. Good color vision and manual dexterity, careful attention to detail, and the ability to work independently are attributes employers look for.

Some employers require technicians to attend industry-sponsored seminars for continuing education. This is especially important given the speed at which new technology, both hardware and software, continues to evolve. Without continual exposure to and experience with new printing related products, a print shop would rapidly lose any advantage it might once have had.

Printers and publishing houses are found in every area of the country, and many of them service local businesses’ printing needs. However, major cities, such as Chicago, New York City, and Philadelphia, are enormous printing centers where every type of printer and method is available.

In order to compete with desktop publishing and the in-house printing of newsletters and other materials, many commercial printers are adding additional services for customer convenience. Database administrators, Web site designers and builders, and information technology experts who can set up programs for convenient email distribution and graphic design services are being added to the traditional commercial printer’s employee list. In terms of advancement, prepress operators with any of the above skills can ask for promotion to one of these positions. With particularly good technological understanding and the ability to communicate sophisticated and even complex ideas clearly, others can advance to a sales position or become a customer service representative. In all cases, preprint operators with postsecondary training will be offered the best opportunities.

Prepress technicians are paid within a range that depends largely upon training and education, experience, the size of the company, and location. The median hourly wages of prepress technicians and workers is approximately $18 per hour. Those at the low end earn roughly $10 per hour, while those at the high end earn around $27 per hour.