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Prepress Technician Careers, Jobs and Employment Information

Prepress Technician Career and Job Highlights

  • The majority receive on the job training. Some attend formal graphics arts programs while others go to postsecondary programs in printing technology.
  • Employers normally look for those who have experience in the printing industry.
  • A lot of prepress jobs will be eliminated as more and more computers are utilized in typesetting and page layout, resulting in a decline of employment.

Prepress Technician Career and Job Description

There are three different stages in the printing process—prepress, press, and binding or postpress. Job printers employed by small firms might perform work in all three stages. Job printers are responsible for laying the page out using the material submitted by the customer, then they must inspect the proofs for mistakes and print clarity, run the job, and attach the pages as desired. However, in the majority of print shops, specialized workers will carry out the various stages of the printing process. To begin with prepress technicians and workers prepare the material. They carry out various duties related to transforming text and pictures into finished pages and producing printing plates of the pages.

Improvements in computer programs and printing technology have empowered great change in the way typesetting and page layouts are completed now. The “hot type” technique of text composition—whereby molten lead was utilized to create unique letters, which were then positioned in frames to create paragraphs and full pages of text— is rarely used now. Instead, phototypesetting, otherwise known as “cold type” technology, replaced the hot type process, and is utilized for some composition jobs, but even it is being replaced quickly by computerized digital imaging technology. Customers today can easily use desktop publishing to provide workers with examples of the product they want printed and bound. Desktop publishing involves using a desktop computer to create the typesetting and page layout work that used to be performed by prepress technicians. Customers with frequent jobs to be run even employ desktop publishers to perform these tasks. Various other customers hire in-house graphic designers to perform desktop publishing as part of their responsibility, or hire out freelance graphic designers to do the work. Prepress technicians are becoming accustomed to getting work from customers via computer disks or e-mail, which already has the typeset material laid out as desired.

More and more prepress work is being carried out by the printing industry utilizing “digital imaging.” Utilizing digital imaging, prepress technicians known as “preflight technicians” check the material provided on disk by customers, then use electronic layout systems to format the pages. Although the page was already formatted by the customer, it still needs to be formatted so that it meets the dimensions of the paper stock. To make color prints, technicians utilize digital color page-makeup systems to electronically create images of the printed pages, and then use off-press color proofing systems to print proof of the pages. Then the proofs are mailed to the customer so that they can check them over one last time. When the okay to print is given, the technicians will utilize laser “imagesetters” to transfer digital images of the pages right onto thin aluminum printing plates.

Still, there are a few customers who give printers material that must utilize cold type technology to run the job. Cold type processing, which includes a wide array of techniques used to produce printing plates without molten lead, has typically used “phototypesetting” to ready text and pictures to be printed. There are many different ways to use this technique, but all of the ways utilize photography to make images on paper. The images are positioned into page format and then photographed again to produce film negatives which will be used to create the actual printing plates.

In one typical way to perform phototypesetting, the printed text must be inputted into a computer that will hyphenate, space, and form columns of text. Typesetters or data entry clerks typically input the text into the computer. Then this information is transferred to a typesetting machine that utilizes photography, a cathode-ray tube, or a laser to produce an image on typesetting paper or film. After the image has been developed, the lithographer takes it and produces the printing plate.

In the traditional photolithographic process, the piece must be arranged and typeset, and then sent to workers who continue to prepare it for the press. Camera operators begin by photographing the piece and creating a lithographic plate from the developed film negatives. After adjusting the light, the film is exposed for the appropriate time period, then the camera operators will develop the film utilizing a sequence of chemical baths. Camera operators might put exposed film in automated equipment that will create and fix the image as needed. The lithographic printing technique forms images through tiny dots which connect to create the picture. Without these, pictures could never be printed. When regular “continuous-tone” photographs must be made again, camera operators utilize halftone cameras to divide the picture into an image consisting of the dots of differing sizes corresponding to the values of the original image.

A more complicated process is color separation photography. In color separation photography workers create four-color separation negatives using the continuous-tone color print or transparency. Since this method is quite complex and can take a lot of time, a lot of the separation work is performed through the use of scanners. Scanner operators utilize scanners to scan photographs and art saving them as digital files, or to produce film negatives or positives of the images. The color separation and the scanning tasks can be controlled by the computer and the scanner operator, fixing all mistakes or deficiencies found in the original image. Every scan creates a dotted image from the original image, called a halftone, and these take on the 4 primary printing colors of yellow, magenta, cyan, and black. Printing plates are created from these images, containing the array of transparent colored inks. Images are then superimposed onto the photo using “secondary” color combinations of red, green, blue, and black which try to replicate the colors and hues of the original photograph.

Film strippers then cut the film of text and images to the necessary dimensions and position and attach the negatives onto layout sheets, known as flats, which platemakers use to create press plates. When flats are finished they look like big film negatives of the text in its finished form. Printing plates are made by platemakers using a photographic procedure. The flat is placed over a thin metal plate that has a thin coat of light-sensitive resin. The checmicals on the plate that are not hidden by dark areas are activated by being exposed to ultraviolet light. In order to remove areas not containing parts of the image, the plate will be passed through a solution causing exposure of the bare metal. Areas of the plate that contain chemicals and that experience exposure to the light then become hard and repel water. The parts that become hard become the text and images that will be printed.

To begin printing, the plate must be thinly coated with water. The water will be repelled by the hard sections, resting only on the areas where bare metal exists. Then a rubber roller containing oil-based ink is used to cover the plates with ink. Since water and oil won’t mix, the areas of the plate covered by water will repel the ink while the hardened areas will retain it. Then finally the ink retained by the hard areas is pressed onto the paper.

Prepress Technician Training and Job Qualifications

Typically prepress techs begin their careers as assistants receiving on the job training. A few careers require several years of experience doing detailed manual work in order to gain the needed skills to do the hard jobs rapidly. Rather than tediously attaching many pieces of photographic negatives to flats, modern prepress technicians commonly utilize computer software to make electronic modifications and create the layout. Sometimes the only time the material is actually produced in print is when the final product is run by the presses. Digital imaging technology is gradually replacing cold type print technology, so those desiring to become prepress technicians will need formal graphic communications training in the wide array computer software programs employed by digital imaging technology.

Postsecondary graphic communications programs are offered through many different avenues. Novices can attend 2-year associate degree programs run by community and junior colleges and technical schools or 4-year bachelor’s degree programs in graphic design colleges where modern prepress skills are taught and students can practice the application of these skills. Typically bachelor’s programs are designed for students desiring to take on management positions in printing or design. Many community and junior colleges, 4-year colleges or universities, vocational-technical institutes, industry-sponsored update and retraining programs, and private trade and technical schools provide courses in prepress designed for workers who don’t want get a degree in a program. A lot or experienced workers in printing will attend some college graphic communications classes in order to improve their skill set and become qualified for prepress jobs. Skilled workers working in the printing industry can also obtain prepress training through union sponsored classes. Many employers favor applicants (for prepress jobs) that have experience in the printing industry as well as formal training in the new digital technology. Workers with experience as printing press operators or in other capacities in the printing industry gain knowledge of the plants operations, learn simple prepress tasks, and show their passion toward the industry and their commitment to helping it advance.

Companies are looking for applicants possessing good oral and written skills to fill prepress positions. Applicants should be tactful and nice in their interactions with people since prepress techs must often work with customers to resolve problems. Additionally, those working in smaller shops might even process a customer’s order. Those looking to work for employers utilizing modern printing technology should have a good background in electronics and computers. Workers should also be capable in mathematics as these skills will be needed to operate software programs which control computerized prepress devices. Sometimes the cost of jobs must be calculated by prepress workers.

Prepress technicians and workers must have good hands, focus on details, and work alone. Prepress techs must also have good vision, particularly visual acuity, depth perception, field of view, color vision, and the ability to focus rapidly. Artistic ability is also an asset. Firms also look for workers who are calm and adaptive since many deadlines must be met and workers must learn lots of new software as well as how to operate new equipment.

Prepress Techician Job and Employment Opportunities

Overall employment of prepress technicians and workers is projected to fall through 2012. However, the amount of jobs for printers is projected to increase, albeit at a pace slower than average. The need for more printed material should be on the increase as incomes rise, more and more kids enroll in school, more people seek higher education, and markets become bigger. However, as more computers are used for desktop publishing many prepress tech jobs will be eliminated.

Advancements in technology will impact employment in many different ways. An increasing amount of page layout and design will be done using computers. Thus, the demand for preflight technicians will continue to be stable. Many prepress techs and workers like pasteup, composition and typesetting, photoengraving, platemaking, film stripping, and camera operator jobs will likely experience a fall in employment due to automation efforts. Thanks to computer software which empowers office employees the ability to modify typeface and style as well as format pages using just a pc, many typesetting and composition occupations have already disappeared and more occupations will be eliminated over time.

Opportunities will differ by industry. Some innovations in technology have caused a lot of prepress functions become operations carried out by advertising and public relations agencies, graphic design firms, and large firms. Firms are increasingly employing in-house desktop publishers to perform page layout and graphic design tasks since computer programs have advanced and also become easy to use. Many companies realize savings by preparing their own newsletters and reports rather than hiring out these jobs. Even newspapers, writers and editors are performing much of their work using publishing software.

Opportunities in commercial print establishments should create some new postions for prepress technicians and workers. Printing jobs will be finished in shorter amounts of time due to newer faster equipment, allowing commercial printers to service new markets which require short lead times. Since small establishments prevail, commercial printing should offer the best prospects for inexperienced workers who are looking to learn all the facets of printing.
Firms favor employees that are skilled in the many different aspects of printing. For those with experience, the best prospects will be available to those who have solid foundation in computers and have graduated from postsecondary programs in printing technology or graphic communications. Many companies favor these programs since the training they receive is very thorough and will aid them greatly in learning the printing process and adapting to new procedures.

Historical Earnings Information

In 2002, the average hourly wages of prepress technicians and workers were $14.98. The middle 50 percent made anywhere from $11.25 to $19.68 an hour. The bottom 10 percent made less than $8.68, and the top 10 percent made more than $24.36 an hour.

For job printers, average earnings were $14.47 an hour. The middle 50 percent made $10.98 to $18.91 an hour. The bottom 10 percent made less than $8.59, while the top 10 percent made more than $23.06 an hour.

In 2002, the average wages for workers in commercial printing, the industry employing the most prepress techs and workers, were $16.05. The average earnings workers in the newspaper, periodical, and book publishing industry was $13.07 an hour. Job printers made on average $14.84 an hour in commercial printing, while in the newspaper, periodical, and book publishing industry the average wages were $13.98 an hour.