Printing machine operators work in pressrooms, controlling and maintaining printing presses. Depending on the type of printing press they operate, they may have very different duties. The most common type of printing press is offset lithography, which transfers an inked impression from a rubber-covered cylinder to paper or other material. Other types include gravure, flexography, screen printing, letterpress, and digital. Plateless processes are also becoming more common, including digital, electrostatic, and ink-jet printing. These newer methods are used for quicker, in-house printing and copying jobs. Printing machine operators prepare the presses for printing by installing the printer plates, inking the pressures, loading paper, and adjusting for the proper paper size. They then feed paper through the press cylinders and adjust the controls as needed.
During the printing process, operators observe the presses and keep them stocked with paper. They correct any problems that arise during printing. They also pull sheets out to check for quality. Operators are responsible for preventative maintenance on the printing machines, including oiling and minor repairs. Their jobs differ depending on the size of the machines they operate. Smaller shops usually have smaller machines that can be operated by one person; larger ones have machines that need several operators at once. Most plants today have installed computer systems to monitor and control printing operations. This allows operators to adjust the press electronically during printing.
Printing machine operators need to have a strong mechanical aptitude. They need to have skills in mathematics that will enable them to calculate such things as weight, percentage, and the amount of ink required for jobs. They need to have well-developed verbal and written communication skills. Due to advances in the occupation, knowledge of chemistry, electronics, color theory, and physics have become more important.
In 2002, printing machine operators earned a median hourly wage of $13.95. Earnings ranged from the lowest 10%, who earned less than $8.32, to the highest 10%, who earned more than $22.46. The following shows the median hourly wages in the industries employing the highest numbers of printing machine operators:
- Newspapers, periodicals, book, and directory publishers — $16.09
- Commercial printing — $15.02
- Converted paper products — $14.95
- Plastic products — $13.21
- Business support services — $10.60
Training and Education
Most printing machine operators receive on-the-job training in an informal setting. However, employers prefer to hire those who have completed a formal apprenticeship or postsecondary training program. Apprenticeships usually last about 4 years and include classroom training and on-the-job training. Formal postsecondary programs at community colleges or trade and technical schools last 2 years and result in the granting of an associate degree. These programs are heavier on theoretical knowledge, which is growing in importance because it is often required to operate newer, technologically advanced equipment.
Newer presses require workers to have knowledge of computers, and most employees undergo continual training to update their skills. Printing machine operators who show leadership potential may advance to pressroom supervisor positions. Visit this page about trade schools for more information on related careers.
In 2002, printing machine operators held about 199,000 jobs. Most were employed in the printing industry, while many were employed by newspaper publishers.
Between 2002 and 2012, employment of printing machine operators is expected to increase more slowly than the average. Demand for printed materials is expected in increase, but due to increased use of new computerized printing equipment, demand for operators will not keep pace with this growth. However, because of the amount of workers expected to retire, job opportunities will be favorable.