Production: A Roadmap to Developing Skilled Press Operators

Experienced press operators are important to every printer’s success. Whether you’re developing your own or hiring from outside, strong leadership and communication are essential to each operator’s growth.

How skilled is your press crew? Do they have the necessary skill set for their position? Are you compensating them fairly? Are they earning their keep? Are they helping your organization move forward or are they mired down in the same bad habits that have slowed your growth for years? This and more is what you should be asking on a daily basis of your press operators.

With all these questions, you’ve got to get started somewhere. It’s important to develop levels for the operators on our crews. Not everyone starts at the top, not everyone advances at the same rate, and developing key personnel can be hard work.

In order to accomplish the goals of the organization, your crew(s) needs to have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. In order to do this, establishing “levels” within the job of press operator is necessary. After years of putting together teams and realizing what is needed to be successful in the press area, I sincerely believe that structured levels of press personnel makes good sense.

How you determine the skills of each individual employee needs to follow standards and measures. In order to develop these standards (and develop crews), putting specific expectations in the form of a job description is necessary. Clear communication is essential when setting goals. Without specific job requirements it’s like telling someone to drive from New York to L.A. and not giving them a map, GPS or any further instructions; eventually they might get there, but most will give up on the way and the ones who do make it will end up frustrated, late and confused.

Let’s face it, the hiring process is expensive and time consuming; we want employees to be successful for not only the good of the company but to make our jobs easier and allow us to become more productive. Interviewing is a challenge; stepping through the H.R. hoops, background checks, calling references, etc. When we finally make the decision to extend a job offer the process of training begins, and it can be a long, tedious, expensive process.

Regardless of if you’re hiring from outside the organization or developing homegrown stock, the process remains the same.

So first figure out how many skill levels you need. Everyone you hire isn’t going to come with the same experience, skill set or ability. You will need to determine how many stepping stones it’s going to take to get to the point of press “expert,” and how long you’re willing to groom individuals to reach that point.

My recommendation is to establish four levels for your pressroom operation, outside of supervision/management. For the “on the floor” operators, the folks who get the hands-on job done, I’d set-up the following levels: Roll Tender/Reel Room Operator, Press Operator Level 1, Press Operator Level 2 and Press Operator Level 3. As individuals grow their skills through experience and graduate up through the levels, there will be tasks that will appear similar. Keep in mind that as individuals build on these skills we’ll introduce new requirements as well, and the expectations continue to grow.

Roll Tender/Reel Room Operator

If you’re a pressperson now, you’ve probably started at this level. It’s critical to understand that in any successful pressroom, you’re truly the backbone of the team. Sloppy work and missing pasters shuts down the entire operation. You can have the most experienced press operator on press but without hitting your pasters things are not going to go so well. This may be considered an entry level position but without someone who can master this operation the rest of the pressroom is doomed.

One of the first things this individual needs to learn is obviously how to make a paster (patterns/nose tabs/bridge tape). Whether you’re using a straight-line, a “V” or a “W” management needs to have a specific diagram showing exactly how to position a paster. I’m not going to go into the entire training process, but again communication is critical, and if you don’t work closely with this individual and really focus on the details, you’re simply going to end up with a frustrated and untrained person and churn through this position on a regular basis. Allow this person to become successful through proper training and clear instructions; they could be your next Master Press Operator in a short period of time.

Focus is a key in this position. I’ve seen more often than not that the individuals who fail in this position don’t establish consistent work habits, forgetting things like airing up the shaft, forgetting bridge tape or just not following standard SOPs. It’s a position in which the simple things count.

How long you allow for this person to become proficient at their job is up to you; I believe they should be able to perform the job with a minimum degree of supervision within a month, depending of course on the individual.

Before we get into more specifics on these positions, I’d like to touch on education and experience. I’ve interviewed individuals with advanced college degrees who couldn’t string a lead or set ink if their life depended on it. I’ve also interviewed individuals who dropped out of high school who have the mechanical ability, common sense, work ethic and desire to become a pressroom supervisor and more. I believe that work ethic, mechanical ability and common sense are three of the most desirable traits in a successful press operator. So if H.R. hands you a job description with a requirement for education, hand it right back.

Previous experience is another piece of the puzzle that often comes into play. While a job description may require specific press experience, I’ve found many excellent candidates who have above average mechanical ability and skills outside of the printing industry who take to press operations like a duck to water. Don’t shortchange yourself, the company or the applicant by sticking to what’s worked in the past. With more and more skilled craftsmen getting out of our trade and less and less qualified press operators available, don’t be afraid to take a chance outside of the box when hiring your next operator.

Offset presses are complex pieces of machinery. It takes time to learn their operation and become proficient at their operation. Experience at progressive levels is beneficial to both the company and employee and contribute to the growth of the operator.

Level 1 Press Operator

If you’re lucky enough to find someone from another shop with experience on a press (web or sheet) this is where you want to start them. Likewise, if you find an individual with a tremendous mechanical background with strong work ethic and even stronger common sense (as previously described) they are a perfect candidate for this level. But, let’s not forget the roll tender who you’re developing, another excellent candidate for a step up in your press operation. These are often folks who moved into press from the mailroom and have the necessary skills to excel on press.

If possible, this individual would benefit most by working alongside a more experienced press operator. They should be familiar with the details of the job within two weeks and able to become proficient in their duties within three months from the start of service then continue to grow with an eye on the next level within a period of nine months to a year from the point of hire.

They should understand the importance of hitting deadlines and have the flexibility to adapt to any new procedures on press. This is the point that they should begin to develop a remedial skill set on electronics you may have on press; i.e. ink systems, registration systems and water systems. They should become familiar with the basics of your console and how each affects the printing.

At the same time, individuals at this level should learn basic press operations, simple folder set-up, basic web paths, and adjusting trolleys and general maintenance. It’s also important they learn to respect the equipment; i.e. safe operation; inching the press, locking up plates safely and accurately, where the stop buttons are, etc.

Another important but often overlooked skill to develop at this point is communication. Not only listening and deciphering the supervisor’s requests, but having the ability to explain what challenges they see on press to other operators and supervisors. The learning process needs to continue and the only way it can is with detailed two-way communication.


Level 2 Press Operator

Before moving to this level, the supervisor/manager has actually had some time to observe the individual and evaluate their abilities. Some learn faster than others; although I’ve established a rough timeline of a year at Level 1, it’s important to realize there is no set time to move into this higher level. Some are ready in six months; others can take substantially longer. You’ll know when it’s right and likewise you’ll know when it’s too soon (even when the individual thinks it’s time enough).

While I find it’s great to sit down and run through how far the individual has advanced, I prefer a “show and tell” on press. Most of the time by now you’ll realize how far the person has grown, but having them go through the press alongside you is a great opportunity and can be beneficial to nip any bad habits in the bud before they develop into long-term problems.

When moving to the Level 2 Press Operator, the following job functions are essential:

Basics skills

  • Ability to properly set ink
  • Spotting plates in the correct position/imposition
  • A clear understanding and ability of page configurations and web paths
  • Maintaining correct ink and water balance to run a dry sheet with crisp color reproduction
  • Maintaining color registration and proper setting of ink
  • Understanding press gain/dot gain and how to minimize

Secondary skills

  • Mastering all prior skills from previous positions
  • Understanding all preventive maintenance operations and cleaning/maintenance of press
  • Operating the press in a safe and efficient manner
  • Ability to skillfully operate clamp truck and forklift (basic skills should have been mastered before this point and testing/certification should be in place)

Basic responsibilities

  • Keeping a safe, clean and orderly work area
  • Assisting in the development of other pressroom personnel
  • Meeting deadlines
  • Filling in where necessary at all levels within established skill sets
  • Webbing up press
  • Assisting/locking-up plates
  • Maintenance/cleaning ink fountains, blankets, etc.
  • Maintenance/changing blankets, socks, rollers, etc.

And of course the disclaimer—any other duties as deemed necessary by the supervisor/management that contribute to the overall success of the team.

A mock-up of a paster pattern for an 11-inch web. Hanging material near reel stands to assist press personnel helps to ensure standard operating procedures are followed.


Level 3 Press Operator

At this point, the operator has a minimum of two to three years of experience and should be proficient in all areas of offset press operations. Obviously, they should be a strong asset to the team, the organization, and their supervisor. They should be able to fill in for the supervisor as necessary and considered someone that operators in training can look to for expert guidance.

Many believe that it takes five years plus to achieve this level, I fall back on “it depends on the individual.” I’ve seen press operators who through poor management have been elevated to this level who should still be on level one. I’ve seen others who are capable of achieving this level in two years and others who might not get there in 10 years. While so much depends on the training and supervision, the biggest factor to the success of any press operator is that individuals desire to be successful and grow in their skill/career.

I’m not going to attempt to step through the requirements of this position. The qualifications and skill set is so similar to that of the prior level it’s not worth doing so. Of course the degree of work should be taken up a notch, an understanding of the press and printing processes should be mastered, they should be a mentor to others in the pressroom, they should be capable of any and all advanced press operations (such as striping rollers or setting iron to iron), and produce quality products while achieving deadlines on a daily basis. The position description will read very much like Press Operator 2 except the expectation should be to have mastered all skills and operations learned previous to this point.

This is the top of the line press operator who is preparing to either step into a supervisor position or has developed skills that may make them attractive to another company. You want to develop operators to this point so that they can help to take your pressroom forward, but you also must face the fact that with these skills they are also marketable to other organizations that may attempt to steal them away. All I can say is do everything you can to hang on to the good ones. The ones you’ve put your time and training dollars into and the ones who know your press best. It’s tough to hire in skilled labor at this level so if you’ve put the energy (and investment) into getting them there, fight to keep them.

Jerry Simpkins is vice president of the West Texas Printing Center with Morris Printing Services, LLC in Lubbock, Texas.

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