Education and Training: High school
Salary: Median—$15.30 per hour
Employment Outlook: Poor
Definition and Nature of the Work
Prepress workers transform written material and pictures into finished pages for lithographers and printers. All the elements of the printed page are assembled in the prepress stage. Words are set in type of the correct size and style in a process known as typesetting, and illustrations and pictures are prepared and positioned. After these elements—which form the pages of the newspaper, magazine, or book—are checked for accuracy, the pages are ready to go to the lithographer.
Advances in computer and automated printing technologies have changed type-setting and page layout work. For many years, typesetting was done by expensive linotype processes. In linotype composition, machines form letters from molten metal and molds (known as hot type). The compositor or linotype operator would set metal letters by hand or machine according to the type sizes and styles marked on the manuscript. Monotype operators would cast type one letter at a time.
As of the mid-2000s hot type was used chiefly for the largest sizes of type or the fancy letters used in advertisements or at the beginning of the chapters of a book. These decorative letters are called display type.
Most typesetting is done with cold type technology (typesetting without molten lead) and computers. One method used in cold type is called phototypesetting, in which film is used to set the type. In a certain form of phototypesetting, a computer produces text with the correct format on special paper. Paste-up workers then place and fit together all the elements of the job—type, pictures, captions, and titles—page by page on special paper that adheres to a stiff board. These pages are called camera-ready copy, meaning they are ready to be photographed and made into printing plates.
The use of film for typesetting is declining because it is now possible to complete most of the prepress process with a computer. Electronic pagination system operators or desktop publishers do the typesetting and page layout complete with artwork and graphics. In addition, laser printers can read text from computer files and then transfer it to plates or paper. In that way, the pages on disk files are converted directly into printing plates. This change eliminates a number of occupations in phototypesetting.
Education and Training Requirements
Prepress jobs usually require a high school education. Good spelling skills and knowledge of correct grammar are important, as is an eye for form and balance in layout. Since the future of the field involves the use of computers, experience with computer software programs is very important.
Many prepress workers are trained on the job or in apprenticeships. Another way to learn the trade is to take graphic arts courses or printing technology courses at a technical institute, junior college, or four-year college.
Getting the Job
Beginners in the prepress industry can get jobs as trainees at small printing shops. To find out about apprenticeships, contact your local union office or the office of the state employment service.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Advancement in the typesetting field depends largely upon the worker's skill and adaptability to new technologies such as the latest computer software programs. Workers with a good business sense may choose to open their own shops. Courses in economics and business are important for these types of careers.
Some typesetters specialize in fine, expensive prepress work for advertising agencies; others do general printing work and offer especially fast service or low rates. The growing use of digital technology in the field means that the best opportunities will be for individuals with computer experience who have completed postsecondary programs in printing technology or graphic communications.
Employment opportunities for prepress workers are expected to decline through the year 2014. Since more and more corporations and firms have their own desktop publishing divisions, most phototypesetting and page layout jobs will be eliminated. As a result, employment of desktop publishers will grow much faster than average.
Working conditions are improving in the industry. This change is partly due to the use of modern machines that must be housed in a controlled environment. Prepress room operators usually work in well-lighted and well-ventilated shops. In older plants, conditions are not as pleasant because of the strong smell of chemicals and inks and the constant noise of the machines.
Prepress room employees typically work an eight-hour day, five days per week. Frequently their work must be done at night to meet early-morning deadlines for newspapers and other customers. Overtime is often available because of the uneven flow of jobs into the plant and the constant customer demand for quick turnaround time.
Where to Go for More Information
Association of Graphic Solutions Providers
7200 France Ave. S, Ste. 223
Edina, MN 55435
Graphic Arts Information Network
200 Deer Run Rd.
Sewickley, PA 15143-2600
National Association for Printing Leadership
75 W. Century Rd.
Paramus, NJ 07652-1408
Earnings and Benefits
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly salary for a prepress worker is $15.30. More than half of all prepress workers are members of a union, which entitles them to a number of benefits. As of 2006 union contracts provided a two-week vacation to workers after the completion of one year of service.