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Opportunities in the Printing Industry

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The printing industry affords opportunities for many diverse skills and talents. If your abilities lie in the area of facts and figures, you may belong in the front office-as an estimator, cost accountant, or production scheduling coordinator. If you have an outgoing personality and are comfortable with people, you might find fulfillment in the sales department. If you're "good with your hands," stripping and plate-making require a delicate touch and steady nerves. Persons with mechanical skills would do well in the press room or bindery. Industrial engineers and equipment designers are needed to produce new machines to increase productivity and lower costs. Creative people will find that the printing industry is always seeking good designers, layout and paste-up artists, and creative idea people. Procurement and compliance officers are needed to handle government and environmental issues and to submit competitive proposals for large corporate and government contract bids. If you're a technology person or a good web designer, there's the computer side of the business, with its need for people who are both scientific and artistic. Indeed, a skilled computer graphics designer can basically write his or her own ticket. So you see, for centuries the printing industry has been a magnet for business-minded people, technicians, craftspeople, and designers.

Printing is indeed a pervasive industry. You and I come into contact with some kind of printing every day and minute of our lives. Consider some of the things besides newspapers and magazines that are printed: money, marriage licenses, laws, wet paint signs, product labels, auto registration tags, shoe sizes, greeting cards, and, yes, even oranges! As we have seen, printing is one of the largest industries in America. This is because every enterprise, large or small, must be supported by some kind of printed matter. Invoices and statements help bring in money; sales brochures help sell the product; stock offerings fuel expansions; and plans for an expansion are put down on paper before a stone is turned.

In addition to the sheer volume of printing, with its many opportunities for a worthwhile career, printing offers something additional. When you are in printing, you are in the vanguard of American business, industry, or education. Riding on the front bumper of the Earth-ship Enterprise, so to speak, you, as a printer crew person, are privileged to receive insights into the way things work in the world of American and international business.

Benjamin Franklin, the patron saint of printing in America, summed up the essence of career planning two hundred years ago: "Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day."


According to government statistics, average hourly wages in the printing industry are higher than the average for all manufacturing. In recent years, wages have risen due to greater competition for workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the printing and publishing industry added 6,000 jobs in June 1997 alone. Yet as the pool of entry-level workers continues to shrink, the skills needed for these jobs have gotten increasingly complex. The average hourly earnings in June 1990 were $11.15 per hour as compared to $14.05 by early 1996.

Turnover among employees is less than the national average. Another important factor in the health of the American printing industry, and one that is not so easily measured, is the attainment in the United States of higher and higher educational levels among the population as a whole. The more educated a population, the more interest there is in the printed word, making for a growing demand. Related to this is the informal adoption of English as a "universal" language of international commerce and science, affecting favorably the export of English-language magazines, books, and newspapers.

As it stands today, the printing industry affords a great many career opportunities. Yet this is only a beginning. As we saw before, printing is undergoing change as technological developments introduce new methods and machines almost daily. These new machines, many of them, are not just "new and improved," they are sometimes totally new concepts, changing the way things have been done for centuries. These changes will bring about the elimination of some jobs, of course, but the net effect will be to raise the standards of skill and competence among all employees Thus, opportunities will grow for intelligent, adaptable, and motivated people. They will find a place in the graphic arts industry. In subsequent chapters, we'll take a more detailed look at the industry and its component parts.


For centuries, printing technology remained fairly stable, with little or no change over the years. Only in recent times have any significant changes occurred, and these have been mostly in the prepress phase. A graphic artist employed in the 1940s could still hold down a similar position in the 1960s with little or no retraining.

However, in the past few decades, many technical jobs have changed drastically. In some positions, such as those in the preparation phase, an old-timer would be totally lost. The stripping department, the typesetting department, the camera room, and the plate-making section would be nearly unrecognizable. Likewise, the older printer would not see the familiar banks of linotype machines and wouldn't smell and feel the heat of molten white metal.

But don't let these drastic changes discourage you. The important fact that emerges from the upheaval going on in the printing industry is summed up in one word: opportunity. Whenever there is change, new avenues for progress open up. These new roads will be traveled by informed, well-trained, and competent crafts persons. In addition to crafts persons, printing will have pressing needs for engineers, scientists, computer technicians, accountants, salespeople, copy editors, and artists. To each of these positions the applicant must bring a flexible mind and be able and willing to try something different, no matter how radical it may seem.

The rewards are quite generous. Because the industry requires such a diverse set of skills, it is willing to pay for them. Newspaper production employees, for example, are among the highest paid blue-collar workers in the nation, averaging in 1989 more than $11 per hour, and approximately $14 an hour in 1996. The average for printers as a whole is similarly high, with even higher wages for unionized workers. The segments of the printing industry that are currently growing, and which therefore offer the greatest opportunities, are the pre-press and post-press phases. However, it must be understood that in spite of a net growth, some jobs in these phases are being eliminated because of the efficient use of new high-technology equipment. The opportunities occur because of first, the overall growth of printing, estimated at about 4 percent per year into the early 1990s; second, the substitution of new skills, to take the place of the phased-out skills.

If a new stripping machine cuts down on the number of strippers employed in a plant, it also requires at least one new employee to operate the machine. The new employee does not have to know how to use a razor blade or scribe a clean line, but that person does have to know how to get the most out of a sophisticated piece of electronic equipment.

The job opportunities are not in Linotype machine operating, stereotype making, plate engraving, proof press operating, or page lockup-all jobs associated with letterpress printing. The best and brightest opportunities lie in the fields most affected by technological progress: photo composition, automated picture scanning, electronic color proofing, computer-assisted page makeup, computerized text editing, electronic stripping, and automated plate-making, along with business skills such as computer-based accounting, pricing, and estimating, to name a few.

Although the printing industry is huge, it is made up of over 100,000 different firms, averaging about $1.5 million each in annual receipts. Eighty percent of the printing firms in the United States can be classified as small businesses employing fewer than 20 persons, with the owners and managers actively involved in the day-to-day operations of the company. The newcomer to the field has a clear-cut choice: cast your lot with the big firms where you can expect to find a niche for a specialized skill, or go for the smaller firms where you can realize your potential in broader management abilities. Each choice offers advantages and disadvantages that should be weighed carefully before you make a decision.

It should be emphasized that a choice is necessary. If you seek a position with a large or small printing establishment, you should tailor your job seeking to the ultimate goal. A campaign to win a job as a manager trainee in a tightly controlled small firm must necessarily emphasize your abilities as an all-around achiever with broad knowledge of all aspects of the printing business. If you're aiming to join the world of big business in a major corporation, your best avenue of approach is to offer a specialized skill and go from there.

In subsequent chapters in this book, we'll examine each of the jobs in printing and allied trades in greater detail. Then you can make up your own mind where you belong in the space-age graphic arts industry.
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