Printing Industry

Significant Points

Nature of the Industry[About this section] [To Top]

The printing industry includes establishments primarily engaged in printing text and images on to paper, metal, glass, and some apparel and other materials. Printing can be divided into three distinct stages: prepress, the preparation of materials for printing; press or output, the actual printing process; and postpress or finishing, the folding, binding, and trimming of printed sheets into their final form. Companies that provide all three services first prepare the material for printing in the prepress department, then produce the pages on the pressroom floor, and finally trim, bind, or otherwise ready the material for distribution in the postpress department. Increasingly, printers also are providing database management, mailing, or distribution services to meet customer needs.

Goods and services. A wide range of products are produced in the printing industry. In addition to magazines, books, and some small newspapers, other examples of printed products include direct mail, labels, manuals, and marketing material. Less obvious printed goods include memo pads, business order forms, checks, maps, T-shirts, and packaging. The industry also includes establishments that provide quick printing of documents for the consumer or support services, such as prepress, embossing, binding, finishing, and mailing.

Industry organization. The printing industry is broken into 12 segments that generally reflect the major type of printing method that is used at the establishment or product that is produced. Establishments that use printing plates, or some other form of image carrier, to distribute ink to paper, are broken into five industry segments: lithography, flexography, gravure, screen printing, and letterpress. Lithography, which uses smooth metal plates, is the most widely used printing process in the industry. Lithography lends itself to computer composition and the economical use of color, which accounts for its dominance. Commercial lithographic printing establishments make up the largest segment of the industry, accounting for about 39 percent of employment and about 29 percent of total establishments. Although most newspapers use the lithographic process, their printing activities are not included in this industry, but rather in the publishing industry. Flexography uses printing plates made of rubber or plastic. It is a high-speed process that uses fast-drying inks and can be used on a variety of materials, including labels, shopping bags, milk cartons, and corrugated boxes. Gravure's high-quality reproduction, flexible pagination and formats, and consistent print quality have won it a significant share of packaging and product printing. Screen printing prints designs on clothes and other fabric items, such as hats and napkins. Where letterpress is still used, it prints images from the raised surfaces on which ink sits. The raised surfaces are generated by means of casting, acid etching, or photoemulsion.

Plateless or nonimpact processes, which are the most technologically advanced methods of printing, are included in the digital printing segment of the industry. These include electronic, electrostatic, or inkjet printing, and are used mainly for copying, duplicating, and specialty printing. Much of the work done using digital printing processes is for short run or personalized orders and often done by small shops, but plateless printing is being used more and more throughout the industry, making digital printing the fastest growing printing segment. Digital printing, also known as "variable data printing," offers quick turnaround capabilities and the ability to personalize printed materials.

Quick printing is the industry's third largest segment in terms of the number of jobs and is the industry's second largest segment in terms of number of establishments. Used mostly by small businesses and households, quick printing establishments use a variety of printing and copying methods for projects that have short runs and require quick turnaround. Many of these establishments have expanded into other office-related services, such as offering shipping and selling office supplies to satisfy the small business user. Other segments of the printing industry include establishments that provide specialty services to the printing industry, such as prepress services, trade binding, enhancement finishing (or specialty detailing) and related work.

Recent developments. The printing industry, like many other industries, continues to undergo technological changes, as computers and technology alter the manner in which work is performed. Many of the processes that were once done by hand are becoming more automated, and technology's influence can be seen in all three stages of printing. The most notable changes have occurred in the prepress stage. Instead of cutting and pasting articles by hand, workers now produce entire publications on a computer, complete with artwork and graphics. Columns can be displayed and arranged on the computer screen exactly as they will appear in print, and then be printed. Nearly all prepress work is computerized, and prepress workers need considerable training in computer software and graphic communications. Technology has also affected the printing process itself. Printing machine operators, also known as press operators, increasingly use computers to make adjustments to printing presses in order to complete a job. The same is also true of bindery and other finishing workers.

Digital printing has become the fastest growing industry segment as printers embrace this technology. Most commercial printers now do some form of digital printing. Printing processes today use scanners and digital cameras to input images and computers to format the graphic images prior to printing. Digital printing is transforming prepress operations as well as the printing process. It eliminates much of the lengthy process in manually transferring materials to the printing press by directly transferring digital files to an electronically driven output device.

The printing industry is also taking on new tasks that provide further value for customers. This means customers can now have their finished products labeled, packaged, and shipped directly by printing companies. Other ancillary services that printers may offer to attract new customers include database management, mailing, warehousing, and Web-based order and design work for clients who want to fill out design templates on the Internet rather than creating original design work. Printers feel that these services are increasingly important to their customers and may provide a competitive edge in attracting new business.

Working Conditions[About this section] [To Top]

Hours. The average nonsupervisory worker in the printing industry worked 38.3 hours per week in 2008, compared with 40.8 hours per week across all manufacturing industries. Workers in the industry generally put in an 8-hour day, but overtime is often required to meet production deadlines. Larger companies tend to have shift work. Shift schedules and overtime are based largely on seniority, and differ from establishment to establishment.

Work environment. Working conditions vary by occupation. For example, press operators who work with large web presses or pieces of bindery equipment work in a manufacturing plant environment and often need to wear ear protection. On the other hand, prepress technicians and related workers usually work in quiet, clean, air-conditioned offices. In establishments that print confidential data, such as personal credit card statements, employees work in secure areas that are off-limits to other employees.

Most printing work involves dealing with fine detail, which can be tiring both mentally and physically. Fortunately, advanced technology and ergonomic design in machinery has reduced eye strain and muscle aches.

Working conditions have become less hazardous as the industry has become more automated. Also, printing processes that used acids or other chemicals and solutions are being replaced by digital technologies that are safer and don’t require hazardous materials. Therefore, printing workers are experiencing fewer accidents. Even with safety-enhanced machinery, however, some workers still are subject to occupational injuries. Printing machine operators, for example, work with machinery that has rapidly moving parts that can cause injuries.

Employment[To Top]

In 2008, the printing industry had about 594,100 wage and salary jobs. The largest segment of the industry, in both employment and number of establishments, was commercial lithographic printing (table 1). Printing plants are widely dispersed throughout the country, but more specialized types of printing tend to be regionally concentrated. For example, the printing of financial documents is concentrated in New York City. Other large printing centers include Chicago, Los Angeles-Long Beach, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, DC.

Table 1. Percent distribution of employment and establishments in printing by detailed industry sector, 2008
Industry segment Industry segment Establishments
Total 100.0 100.0
Commercial lithographic printing 38.6 28.9
Commercial screen printing 11.3 14.8
Quick printing 10.5 25.3
Other commercial printing 8.1 9.2
Commercial flexographic printing 6.4 3.8
Manifold business forms printing 5.1 2.2
Books printing 4.8 1.6
Digital printing 4.1 5.8
Prepress services 3.8 4.3
Trade binding and related work 3.5 2.6
Commercial gravure printing 2.4 1.0
Blankbook and looseleaf binder manufacturing 1.4 0.5

Occupations in the Industry[To Top]

Printing occupations range in skill from general skills found among quick printing operators to specialized production occupations rarely found in other industries (table 2). Production occupations make up 53 percent of industry employment with printing machine operators accounting for the most employment of any single occupation in the industry at 17 percent.

Production occupations. Prepress technicians prepare print jobs for the presses. They take text or images from clients and ensure that coloring and other issues are resolved before the job goes to press. For those processes that require it, prepress technicians then create the printing plate. For direct-to-print processes, technicians create the appropriate computer files. Increasingly, prepress technicians receive material electronically, which they upload to computers and use digital imaging software to lay out the pages. In very small shops or shops with small format digital equipment, prepress technicians may also design materials for clients. "Preflight" technicians, prepress workers who examine submitted pages and files, ensure that the design, format, settings, quality, and all other aspects of the finished product will be completed according to clients’ specifications. Some prepress technicians may take on some customer service duties and communicate directly with clients if problems arise.

When material is ready, printing machine operators review the material with the prepress technician, and then install and adjust printing plates on presses. They also meter the flow of solution, adjust pressure, ink the printing presses, load paper, and adjust the press to paper size. Operators must correct any problems that might occur during a press run, which means they must monitor the process throughout the run and make minor repairs or adjustments as necessary. Job printers, who usually work in small print shops, perform the prepress work as well as operate presses.

During the binding or finishing stage, the printed sheets are transformed into products such as books, catalogs, magazines, or directories. Bindery workers, or bindery machine operators, fold and fasten groups of sheets together, often using a saddle stitcher, to assemble folded "signatures." They then feed the signatures into machines for stitching or perfect binding—an automated process that applies glue to the spine of stacked, folded signatures. Most binding operations have been automated and rely on computers to determine such things as the amount or type of glue to use for each product. Bookbinders assemble books from large, flat, printed sheets of paper. They cut, sew, and glue parts to bind new books. They also perform other finishing operations, such as decorating and lettering, often using hand tools. A small number of bookbinders work in hand binderies and provide trade binding or enhancement finishing work. These highly skilled workers design original or special bindings for publications with limited editions, or restore and rebind rare books.

Professional and administrative occupations. Desktop publishers perform typesetting, design, and page layout on personal computers. They make sure that the files have the correct layout and format, thus performing some of the same work done by prepress workers. Illustrators create drawings, charts, graphs, or full-color artwork to complement the text, while graphic designers use their creativity and computer skills to layout advertising material, brochures, and other print items that artfully bring text, photos, and illustrations together to create the kind of visual impact desired by clients. Customer service representatives, also called production coordinators, track the various processes of production and act as liaisons between clients and prepress technicians; some may do preflight testing of documents to ensure completeness.

Other occupations. In addition to these specialized printing occupations, managerial, marketing and sales workers, business and financial operations workers, and workers in transportation and material moving occupations are also employed in the printing industry. Common examples of these workers include sales representatives, cost estimators, and truck drivers.

Table 2. Employment of wage and salary workers in printing, 2008 and projected change, 2008-2018. (Employment in thousands)
Occupation Employment, 2008 Percent Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
All occupations 594.1 100.0 -16.0
Management, business, and financial occupations 40.4 6.8 -14.8
  Top executives 12.8 2.2 -23.8
  Cost estimators 5.3 0.9 -7.0
Professional and related occupations 29.5 5.0 -15.1
  Computer specialists 6.7 1.1 -19.3
  Graphic designers 17.7 3.0 -14.5
Sales and related occupations 36.3 6.1 -14.8
  Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products 23.1 3.9 -14.5
Office and administrative support occupations 111.5 18.8 -18.2
  Bookkeeping, accounting, and auditing clerks 10.3 1.7 -14.9
  Customer service representatives 26.4 4.5 -5.9
  Secretaries and administrative assistants 8.2 1.4 -20.6
  Office clerks, general 9.0 1.5 -14.5
Production occupations 317.1 53.4 -14.6
  First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 24.5 4.1 -14.5
  Team assemblers 6.7 1.1 -12.7
  Bindery workers 48.3 8.1 -23.0
  Bookbinders 5.2 0.9 -14.1
  Job printers 26.7 4.5 -14.5
  Prepress technicians and workers 36.0 6.1 -24.0
  Printing machine operators 103.6 17.4 -7.0
  Cutting and slicing machine setters, operators, and tenders 8.8 1.5 -14.6
  Paper goods machine setters, operators, and tenders 8.3 1.4 -14.5
  Helpers—Production workers 20.4 3.4 -14.5
Transportation and material moving occupations 46.9 7.9 -23.1
  Truck drivers, light or delivery services 6.9 1.2 -14.5
  Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers, hand 9.1 1.5 -23.0
  Machine feeders and offbearers 13.3 2.2 -31.6
  Packers and packagers, hand 9.8 1.7 -23.0
NOTE: Columns may not add to total due to omission of occupations with small employment.

Training and Advancement[About this section] [To Top]

Workers who enter the printing industry are typically trained informally on the job. The length of on-the-job training needed to learn skills varies by occupation and shop. Through experience and training, workers may advance to more responsible positions. Workers usually begin as helpers, advance to skilled craft jobs, and eventually may be promoted to supervisors.

Educational backgrounds vary among workers entering the printing industry. Helpers tend to have a high school or vocational school background, while management trainees usually have a college degree. In general, job applicants must be high school graduates with mathematical, verbal, and written communication skills, and be computer literate.

Production occupations. Production workers, who comprise the majority of all workers in the printing industry, are trained informally on the job. Learning to operate more complex machinery may take several months. Increasingly, formal education in graphic communications is preferred by employers, particularly for prepress technicians. Associate degrees or vocational training are common educational backgrounds, while those looking to advance to management positions usually have bachelor's degrees. Professional certification provides formal recognition for skill acquired on the job and may help workers take on more responsibility or advance within their occupations, but relatively few workers have obtained certification.

Production workers need communications skills to work with clients and must be attentive to detail in order to identify and correct printing problems. Workers need familiarity with computers because of the trend toward electronic data and file use. Tight deadlines mean that workers must work under pressure in order to complete print jobs on time. Employees who work with confidential information, such as credit card or bank statements, may undergo background checks.

Professional and administrative occupations. Most employers prefer a bachelor's or associate degree for entry level administrative and design workers. Desktop publishers and graphic designers usually complete a 2- or 4-year program in graphic communications or graphic design in addition to completing extensive on-the-job training. These workers may learn new skills for 1 to 3 years before they may be qualified for supervisory positions. They should be comfortable with computers and design software. They also should be creative and demonstrate attention to detail and an ability to meet deadlines in a timely fashion. Customer service representatives typically have high school diplomas and related printing industry experience.

Other occupations. While sales representatives typically have bachelor's degrees, much of the training for these positions is done on the job. These workers gain valuable experience by attending training seminars and dealing with customers over the phone and at trade shows. In addition to possessing good communication skills, successful sales workers are persuasive and personable. Several credentials for sales representatives are available that may result in increased responsibility; top sales workers can advance to supervisory positions. Management positions in these occupations are usually filled by those with bachelor's degrees, and who have proven track records of success in the industry.

Outlook[About this section] [To Top]

Employment in printing is expected to decline rapidly, but the need to replace workers who retire or leave the occupation will create job opportunities, especially for persons with up-to-date printing skills. Changing technology and new business models that make greater use of digital equipment and shorter-run print jobs will stem the rate of decline and provide job opportunities in an evolving printing industry.

Employment change. Wage and salary employment in the printing and related support activities industry is projected to decline 16 percent over the 2008–18 period, compared with 11 percent growth projected for the economy as a whole. This decrease reflects the increasing automation of the printing process and the expanding use of the Internet that reduces the need for printed materials. Some small- and medium-size firms are also consolidating in order to afford the investment in new technology and equipment leading to an expected drop in employment. However, digital printing and shorter run print capabilities allow many printers to accept smaller job orders and remain profitable, thus stemming the level of employment decline somewhat.

Processes that had been performed manually are now largely automated. As a result, job skills have changed and nearly all workers need to be computer literate and comfortable working with sophisticated equipment. Some jobs have shifted from production occupations to computer-related occupations that perform the same functions while others have largely vanished. For example, demand for workers who perform prepress tasks manually—paste-up workers, photoengravers, camera operators, film strippers, and platemakers—is expected to disappear. In some cases, technological advances have shifted job duties from printers to printers' clients. For example, as layout and design are performed and transmitted electronically to printing companies, employment of desktop publishers and graphic designers in client industries should grow.

Growth in mechanization in bindery operations should result in declines in the employment of bindery workers. While the need for manual binding has declined, the demand for hand finishing operations, such as individualized enhancement services generally provided for high end or one-of-a-kind publications, has grown offsetting some of the employment decline in bindery and finishing departments. Employment of bookbinders, who do very skilled craft work by hand, also will decline mostly due to falling demand for their services. Increasing sophistication of printing presses will lead to a net decline in the employment of printing machine operators; however, increased capabilities for producing smaller quantities of job output will lead to increases in job orders thus offsetting employment declines.

Many printers are expanding the number of secondary services they offer in response to an increasing number of alternatives to traditional printing services. These services include mailing, shipping, and performing inventory and database management for customers. Growth in these services, coupled with increases in digital printing capabilities, will moderate the decline in employment of printing's production occupations and create new opportunities for workers with customer service, graphic design, or information technology abilities.

Job prospects. Despite the projected downturn in employment in printing, retirements and turnover will continue to generate job openings, especially in firms that feature large-press printing or small-run, customizable print products. Opportunities should be best for those with computer, graphic design, and communications skills.

Earnings [About this section] [More salary/earnings info] [To Top]

Industry earnings. In 2008, average weekly earnings for production workers in the printing industry were $643, compared with $724 for production workers in manufacturing as a whole. Earnings in the printing industry can vary significantly by industry segment and by occupation. The industry segment with the highest earnings is commercial lithography, with average weekly earnings of $696. Median hourly wages for the largest occupations in the industry also vary, as shown in table 3.

Table 3. Median hourly wages of the largest occupations in printing, May 2008
Occupation Printing All industries
Sales representatives, wholesale and manufacturing, except technical and scientific products $26.50 $24.68
First-line supervisors/managers of production and operating workers 25.05 24.25
Prepress technicians and workers 17.39 16.84
Graphic designers 17.35 20.39
Job printers 16.77 16.21
Customer service representatives 16.15 14.36
Printing machine operators 15.85 15.46
Bindery workers 13.32 13.17
Machine feeders and offbearers 11.81 12.29
Helpers production workers 10.84 10.48

Benefits and union membership. Workers in larger printing companies generally receive standard benefits. Union membership in this industry is less than average. Just 7 percent of printing industry employees are union members or are covered by a union contract, compared with 14 percent of workers throughout the economy, but this proportion varies greatly by city.



*Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Used by permission.

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