Prepress outlook: Where the jobs are going

By Ron Ellis


The past 10 years have seen prepress departments shrink dramatically. Not only have computer to plate (CTP) and digital imposition caused staffing reductions in prepress, but over the past two years, the economic situation has thinned prepress departments as well. Not only are staff doing more with less, but management continues to look for software and tools to make departments run even more efficiently.

David A. Clark, is president of Sprout/Standish, Inc. and chairman of David has been placing printing professionals into the graphic arts industry for 25 years. Clark offered an interesting historical perspective on hiring and employment activity in the prepress area.

ÒDuring the first 15 years, more than 50 percent of my placement activity was involved in the prepress area — dot etchers, strippers, Scitex/ scanner operators and sales searches (to feed the need for volume that the large separators had). These were very large, stand-alone businesses, some with several hundred employees and multiple plants,Ó he said.

ÒWith the advent of very powerful Mac based systems, the million dollar prepress soft/hardware systems were rendered extinct and the shift towards the customers doing much of their own work began. During the next 10 years, the number of candidates outpaced the demand and any new jobs created in that area. Many of these workers were faced with either "retooling" their job skills or leaving the industry for other opportunities. Sad, but true,Ó Clark said.


Where do we go from here?

The next major shift in prepress workflows will be efficient PDF workflows. When I mention PDF workflows to people in commercial environments I often get a laugh. ThatÕs because right now in commercial shops PDF files make a job anything but trouble free and efficient. About 75 percent of time spent in many prepress departments is spent on preflight, file prep, and file repair.

In commercial workflows, PDF files often make the situation even worse because staff may not have the tools and source files needed to repair the bad PDF file. If a PDF file is prepared correctly, however, the file requires no preflight, no prep, or none of the touching that makes pushing a file through the prepress department such a labor-intensive process. Owners are interested in this because if they could get rid of preflight and prep time they could get rid of 75 percent of prepress functions.

Web, publication, or newspaper prepress departments who regularly receive good PDF files from repeat customers say when PDFs are prepared properly, it makes for a smooth workflow with little up-front work. Unfortunately, it is a slower learning curve on the creative side and files still arrive at printing prepress departments with mistakes.

Even with the right distiller settings, if the customer includes RGB graphics, indexed colors, certain nested elements and other problems, the PDF file still will be a problem. Some people solve this with products such as Enfocus softwareÕs Certified PDF Workflow, which can correct, detect, and identify the status of a PDF file. The fact is, that right now PDF files are still tricky, especially in commercial environments.


Eventually bad PDFs wonÕt be a problem

It will be a few years, but imagine what will happen when you finally can use the Export function in programs like Quark and InDesign, and actually get a known useable good PDF file. In this scenario, the export function would convert most non-compliant elements into the appropriate color spaces and resolutions, include the fonts, and in the rare case when it could not correct the items, refuse to generate a PDF. (Acrobat 6 can check a PDF for compliance and fail it, but does not repair them). So when it becomes as simple as having a customer export a usable PDF what will that mean to prepress departments?

A good PDF would change many aspects of prepress. First of all, the PDF file is platform independent, so you would not need both MacÕs and PCÕs, nor would you need all the applications. Just a copy of Acrobat, and a RIP with imposition software. Think of the savings involved in not having to constantly upgrade software and maintain multiple platforms and operating systems. Moving beyond the pure software and hardware issues, what would the impact on staff be? First, because approximately 75 percent prepress is spent on file prep, repair and preflight, you can assume that the number of staff required to run a prepress department will be greatly reduced. A department with seven people in it may only need one or two per shift in this scenario. In addition, the staff would no longer have to be experts in all the different applications, and operating systems. The staff that remains will be PDF experts, adept at troubleshooting and editing PDF files.

The PDF will come in, be imposed, and proofed or imaged. Of course in some industries this will not be feasible for many years. In industries such as packaging and high-end commercial printing, files are touched and customized to a level where even a good PDF file would be junk. But in many segments of a printing industry, a good PDF file would be just fine.


So what happens to the staff of today?

In this scenario they would no longer be needed in printing plants. (I think about this a great deal because I make my living in prepress departments working with the various operating systems, applications, and staff.) From what has happened so far I have seen a clue to this. In my daily business, less of my time is spent in printing plants, and more and more of it is spent with the customerÕs of printers. (Much of my non-plant work comes as referrals from printers to work with their customers).

In many cases customers are preparing good PDF files, installing proofing rips, handling trapping. In short, the work that is currently being handled by the printer and the prepress department is slowly migrating to the customer. With this in mind, many of the prepress jobs of today will be moving out of printing plants and into customer locations. Keep in mind that in order to make a good PDF file, and to have all content match you have to know what a good prepress operator knows. So in the future, prepress operators may be moving upstream, back towards the customers.

In many cases when I am working with customers (non-printing plants), I work with ex-prepress operators from plants. Almost always when I ask what there background is, it is traditional prepress. The average designer just doesnÕt have the experience to prepare and certify these files.

The trend offers both positives and negatives. At the end point many years from now, it may be that the pressman and prepress operator are one and the same. In the near future, as printing moves toward pure manufacturing, it means a more efficient and lower cost manufacturing process. For prepress operators, it may mean moving into a more corporate environment. This often means better benefits, more holidays, and a completely different and sometimes alien environment. One of my favorite things about small and mid-size printing plants is that most staff know the owner on a first name basis. This aspect of the printing industry is comfortable to many employees. This is seldom the case in large corporations. A prepress operator working at a large (non-print) corporation has told me he finds the equipment and surroundings much better. Usually, he is no longer in a windowless room with a cement floor but now has a window view of the Boston skyline or other pleasant scene. While in his past job in the printing plant, to get a day off he would ask the owner or plant manager. Now has to fill out paperwork in advance and wait for approval from the Human Resources department. The trend has the ability to change how a prepress department looks, and where prepress staff work and who they work for. The jobs arenÕt going away, they are just moving upstream.


About the author: Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant specializing in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at

David Clark can be reached at 603-622-0700 or by email at