Printing workers produce print material in three stages: prepress, press, and binding and finishing. They review specifications, calibrate color settings on printers, identify and fix problems with printing equipment, and assemble pages. 


Printing workers typically do the following:

  • Review job orders to determine quantities to be printed, paper specifications, colors, and special printing instructions
  • Arrange pages so that materials can be printed
  • Operate laser plate-making equipment that converts electronic data to plates
  • Feed paper through press cylinders and adjust equipment controls
  • Collect and inspect random samples during print runs to identify any needed adjustments
  • Cut material to specified dimensions, fitting and gluing material to binder boards by hand or machine
  • Compress sewed or glued sets of pages, which are called signatures, using hand presses or smashing machines
  • Bind new books, using hand tools such as bone folders, knives, hammers, or brass binding tools

The printing process has three stages: prepress, press, and binding or finishing. In small print shops, the same person may take care of all three stages. However, in most print shops, workers specialize in an occupation that focuses on one step in the printing process:

Prepress technicians and workers prepare print jobs. They do a variety of tasks to help turn text and pictures into finished pages and prepare the pages for print. Some prepress technicians, known as preflight technicians, take images from graphic designers or customers and check them for completeness. They review job specifications and designs from submitted sketches or clients’ electronic files to ensure that everything is correct and all files and photos are included.

Some prepress workers use a photographic process also known as “cold-type” technology to make offset printing plates (sheets of metal that carry the final image to be printed). This is a complex process, involving ultraviolet light and chemical exposure, through which the text and images of a print job harden on a metal plate and become water repellent. These hard, water-repellent portions of the metal plate are in the form of the text and images that will be printed.

More recently, however, the printing industry has moved to technology known as direct-to-plate. Many prepress technicians now send the data directly to a plating system, bypassing the need for the photographic technique. The direct-to-plate technique is an example of how digital imaging technology has largely replaced cold-type print technology.

Printing press operators prepare, run, and maintain printing presses. Their duties vary according to the type of press they operate. Traditional printing methods, such as offset lithography, gravure, flexography, and letterpress, use a plate or roller that carries the final image that is to be printed and then copies the image to paper.

In addition to the traditional printing processes, plateless or nonimpact processes are becoming more common. Plateless processes—including digital, electrostatic, and ink-jet printing—are used for copying, duplicating, and document and specialty printing, usually in quick-printing shops and smaller printing shops.

Commercial printers are increasingly using digital presses with longer-run capabilities for short-run or customized printing jobs. Digital presses also allow printers to transfer files, blend colors, and proof images electronically, thus avoiding the costly and time-consuming steps of making printing plates that are common in offset printing.

Print binding and finishing workers combine printed sheets into a finished product, such as a book, magazine, or catalog. Their duties depend on what they are binding. Some types of binding and finishing jobs take only one step. Preparing leaflets or newspaper inserts, for example, requires only folding and trimming.

Binding books and magazines, however, takes several steps. Bindery workers first assemble the books and magazines from large, flat, printed sheets of paper. They then operate machines that fold printed sheets into signatures, which are groups of pages arranged sequentially. They assemble the signatures in the right order and join them by saddle stitching (stapling them through the middle of the binding) or perfect binding (using glue, not stitches or staples).

Some bookbinders repair rare books by sewing, stitching, or gluing the covers or the pages.

Work Environment

Printing workers held about 276,000 jobs in 2012. Prepress technicians usually work in quiet areas. Printing press operators and print binding and finishing workers work in noisy settings. Press operators' jobs may require considerable lifting, standing, and carrying. Binding often resembles an assembly line on which workers do tedious, repetitive tasks, such as folding and trimming leaflets or newspaper inserts.

The industries that employed the most printing workers in 2012 were as follows:

Printing and related support activities 61%
Newspaper, periodical, book, and directory publishers 9
Paper manufacturing 7
Administrative and support services 3
Advertising, public relations, and related services 3

Work Schedules

Most printing workers work full time. Weekend and holiday hours may be necessary to meet production schedules. For example, newspaper printing may need to take place at night.

Education and Training

Prepress technicians typically need an associate’s degree or postsecondary non-degree award. Printing press operators and print binding and finishing workers need a high school diploma and on-the-job training.


Most prepress technicians receive some formal postsecondary classroom instruction before entering the occupation. They typically get either a postsecondary non-degree award or an associate’s degree from a technical school, junior college, or community college. Workers with experience in other printing techniques can take a few college-level graphic communications or prepress-related courses to upgrade their skills and qualify for prepress jobs.

For printing press operators and print binding and finishing workers, a high school diploma is sufficient to enter the occupation. Postsecondary coursework is offered through community colleges and vocational schools, although most workers learn the required skills through on-the-job training.

There are also bachelor's degree programs in graphic design aimed primarily at students who plan to move into management positions in printing or design.


Beginning press operators load, unload, and clean presses. With time and training, they become fully qualified to operate a particular type of press. Operators can gain experience on more than one kind of printing press during the course of their career.

Experienced operators periodically get retraining to update their skills. 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.

Most bookbinders and bindery workers learn through on-the-job training. Inexperienced workers may start out as helpers who do simple tasks, such as moving paper from cutting machines to folding machines, or catching stock as it comes off machines.

They learn basic binding skills, including the characteristics of paper and how to cut large sheets of paper into different sizes with the least amount of waste. Usually, it takes about 1 month to learn to operate simpler machines, but it can take up to 1 year to become completely familiar with more complex equipment, such as computerized binding machines.

As workers gain experience, they learn to operate more types of equipment. To keep pace with changing technology, retraining is increasingly important for bindery workers.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Prepress workers in particular need good communication skills because they must confer with clients about the details of a printing order.

Computer skills. The printing process is computer-based, requiring printing workers to have basic computer skills. Most prepress technicians must be familiar with publishing software.

Detail oriented. Printing workers must pay attention to detail to identify and fix problems with print jobs.

Math skills. Printing workers use basic math when computing percentages, weights, and measures and when calculating the amount of ink and paper needed to do a job.

Mechanical skills. Printing press operators must be comfortable with printing equipment and be prepared to make adjustments if a printing error occurs. Mechanical aptitude is also important for print binding and finishing workers, who use automated binding machines.


The median annual wage for printing workers was $34,100 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,390, and the top 10 percent earned more than $53,990.

The median wages for printing occupations in May 2012 were as follows:

  • $37,260 for prepress technicians and workers
  • $34,690 for printing press operators
  • $29,750 for print binding and finishing workers

Most printing workers work full time. Weekend and holiday hours may be necessary to meet production schedules. For example, newspaper printing may need to take place at night.

Job Outlook

Employment of printing workers is projected to decline 5 percent from 2012 to 2022. Newspapers and magazines have seen substantial declines in print volume in recent years, as these media have increasingly moved to digital formats. With a declining volume of printed material in these areas, demand for print workers has decreased.

This trend is expected to continue, and it is expected to result in further employment declines in the printing industry. Employment declines for printing workers should be moderated by other segments of the industry that will likely experience steady demand, including print logistics (labels, wrappers, and packaging) and print marketing (catalogs and direct mail).

Employment of prepress technicians and workers is projected to decline 13 percent from 2012 to 2022. Computer software now allows office workers to specify text typeface and style and to format pages. This development shifts traditional prepress functions away from printing plants and toward advertising and public relations agencies, graphic design firms, and large corporations. In addition, new technologies are increasing the amount of automation in printing companies, so that it takes fewer prepress workers to accomplish the same amount of work.

The employment of printing press operators is projected to decline 4 percent from 2012 to 2022, driven by trends in the printing industry. Their employment is not expected to decline as rapidly as that of prepress technicians, however, because printing press operators are less susceptible to automation.

Employment of print binding and finishing workers is projected to decline 4 percent from 2012 to 2022. The growth of electronic books should reduce demand for print books, which will limit employment of these workers. Demand for quick turnaround for commercial printing, however, will provide some employment opportunities.