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The Pressing Need for Flexo-Press Operators

Have you ever clipped a coupon? Seen a poster? Read a newspaper or a canned food label? Of course you have.

People come into contact with printed materials every day. And as the demand for printed matter continues to grow, so will opportunities for those who press it -- particularly flexo-press operators.

According to the website of the Dunwoody Institute (a technical school in Minnesota), flexo-press operators use flexography, or flexo, to print. Flexo is the process of printing directly on a material using flexible plates and fast-drying inks. Flexo differs from other types of printing, such as letterpress. With flexo, the image area is raised rather than etched.

One of flexo's main benefits is its flexibility. According to one printer's website, flexo can adapt to the needs of the object being printed, be it shower curtains or newspaper inserts.

Another benefit is that flexo is economical. That's according to the Flexographic Technical Association (FTA). The FTA is an organization that serves the needs of the North American flexo industry.

According to Dunwoody, flexo can be divided into three specialties:

Narrow web: Narrow presses are used to print products such as tags

Wide web: Wider presses are used to print products such as fertilizer bags

Corrugated: Large presses print directly on corrugated (textured) board

Typically, press operators get the press ready for printing. They feed paper through it and keep an eye out for any problems. They may have to perform a few maintenance tasks.

What kind of skills does a flexo-press operator need? Dunwoody recommends that operators be attentive to detail and have leadership and communication skills. They should be self-directed, but should also be able to work as part of a team.

Deadlines are important. That's because many printing jobs have tight turnaround times. Operators also need a mechanical aptitude and should know math, chemistry, physics, electronics and color theory.

Ron Schroder is a technical services manager at a printing firm. He says that operators need a good sense of housekeeping and safety. They should also have a solid work ethic and a willingness to continually learn.

Operators usually start their careers with a high school diploma. Many operators train informally on the job. Some continue with a two- or four-year degree or apprenticeship.

The FTA lists 27 post-secondary institutions in North America that offer technical programs in flexo. Those who pursue a formal program should have better job opportunities.

The FTA has a program for high school students called Flexo in High School (FIHS). Nineteen secondary schools currently participate. Schroder is an advisor for one of these programs. He explains the benefits of the program.

"Right now, there is little formal education since flexo is an evolutionary and revolutionary printing medium," he says. "It has changed quickly in the last 10 years, with a huge improvement in quality. We need to set standards and formalize education. Programs like this will help the field continue to grow."

Schroder notes that the flexo industry has just started a certification program through the National Council for Skill Standards in Graphic Communications. The certificate requires operators to have at least five years of hands-on experience.

Newer presses need operators with computer skills. Doug Picklyk is the editor of a printing magazine. He says that although computers are becoming more important in printing, he believes nothing will entirely replace the operator. "You still need someone to program and manipulate the machine," he says.

Dunwoody states that flexo-press operators get paid between $12 and $21 an hour. Assistants can make $9 to $14 an hour.

The FTA predicts continued growth in the North American flexo industry. The growth is due to a general rise in the production of printed matter.

It's also due to the shift in jobs from other types of printing to flexo. Flexo Magazine notes that flexo currently makes up 72 percent of the packaging market.

Once a company goes flexo, it tends to stay flexo. "Shops have to be dedicated to [flexo]," says Picklyk. "It requires different equipment and workflows. It's a different skill set."

Although printing takes place throughout the U.S., large printing centers include New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas and Washington, D.C.

Charlotte, North Carolina, is another printing center. Central Piedmont Community College is located there. It houses the Harper National Flexographic Center. Jerry Howell is the lead instructor. He predicts big opportunities for flexo-press operators.

"An operator has to have tons of diverse skills -- from an eye for color to mechanics," Howell says. "Because few people have all [of] these, the ones [who] do are in great demand."

Society has changed so much, Howell adds, and flexo has been able to adapt with it. This has allowed it to capture market share.

"We are a society of convenience," he says. "We aren't going to go back in time. It's the Wal-Mart syndrome. We increasingly expect more pre-packaged goods at cheap prices. And flexo will be there to print those packages." He anticipates the industry will grow 10 to 20 percent a year.

Picklyk has seen flexo expand its market in recent years. "Quality has improved, so now it is competing in new places and taking over market share," he says. "Though I don't have exact numbers, there should continue to be a demand for more operators."


Flexographic Technical Association (FTA)
Learn more about flexography and the people who work in the industry

Dunwoody Institute -- Digital Printing and Flexography
Find out how to become a flexo-press operator

Printing Industries of America
This organization helps printing companies profitably operate their businesses in the U.S.

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