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Key Traits for Screen Printing Press Operators

October 7, 2013

In the T-shirt printing industry, nothing affects your overall production like a good press operator.

Whether it is on a manual or automatic screen printing press, it is amazingly easy to spot the difference between an average worker and someone who is truly special. The super-skilled press operators all have some common traits that can push your production levels to incredible heights. If you are hiring or training for this position, these are the attributes you should try to find.

1. Leadership. Like a quarterback on a football team, the press operator is in charge and directs the support team to assist. Each member of the team has a share of the duties during the day, but the press operator yells out the audible commands to resolve any challenges, such as adding more ink to a screen, fixing a pinhole, getting more shirts brought to the press, etc. The leadership qualities the press operator exudes define the operational efficiencies of the press work unit. Employees who can step up and take charge of a given task can make great press operators. Look for people who do the right things, regardless of whether someone is watching. Also, the ideal candidate is someone who can easily motivate others to do the same. A take-charge mentality, and someone who pushes others to better performance, will be a big benefit for your press crews.

2. Hustle. I define hustle as the ability to get things accomplished quickly. Great press operators minimize their downtime by flying through the set-up and break-down chores as quickly as possible. If the average press operator can set up and register a job in less than five minutes per screen, the truly talented and hustling press operator can do it in less than three minutes. This makes a big difference if you have multiple 10-plus color jobs to print a day. They move quickly and with a purpose. I’ve seen really good hustlers sprint across the production floor to grab a roll of masking tape, a different durometer squeegee or a test shirt, all just to keep things moving faster.

3. Expertise. Nothing replaces experience. It’s one thing to be able to set up and run jobs, but it’s quite another ordeal to know the intricacies of printing on many different types of apparel. From zippered hoodies, burn-out, moisture-wicking, RPET or spandex blended apparel, to basic 100% cotton, experienced press operators have seen it all. The correct ink to use, correct dwell time for flash units, temperature … they know the formula for success. Great printers know how to get an image to pop off of the shirt — even beyond what the designer intended. Sometimes, they have an art background too, and can converse intelligently with your art staff about how to handle a tricky situation with a challenging image.

4. Running the press. There’s a big difference between running a manual press and an automatic, but the printing theory is basically the same. Keeping the press operational and minimizing downtime is the key to turning over a lot of jobs during the work day. Work areas should be kept clean and the press operator should be focusing not only on what’s being printed at the moment, but what could possibly be a problem. This person will work proactively to resolve the challenge before it becomes an issue.

5. Communication. This is a very important trait to have as a press operator. There are a lot of variables during the day that need to be verified. Shirt counts, design challenges, problems with screens and ink and sometimes even problems with the equipment can crop up on any given day. The press operator has to effectively communicate with a variety of people in the shop to quickly resolve issues. From some technical aspects regarding the print to just a simple “I need more ink in the underbase screen” request, great press operators are on top of their needs and can communicate intelligently on how to get the most out of their presses daily.

6. Self-Starters. Have you ever noticed in your shop that there’s one press operator out of the bunch that stands alone and really doesn’t have to be managed much? While other presses may have issues, this person is so dependable that you can just hand a job over with total confidence that it will be printed quickly and with precise quality that stands above others. These are the press operators that you want to hire or train others to have the skills and work toward. Managing your production floor is incredibly easier with a staff that consists of self-starters that possess an ownership mindset. Babysitting your staff to get work accomplished isn’t any fun, so staff members that possess this trait are always a breath of fresh air. Look for people who are independent workers and get their tasks accomplished with little follow-up from management. They “get it.”

7. Focus and attention to detail. A lot can go wrong with a print while it is on the press. It’s good to have someone who can constantly check and be aware of all the little details that make a great print. I call this having “the eye.” A puller or catcher that consistently finds out-of-registration prints, ink coverage problems, placement, fuzz ball or other issues could be your next great press operator — if given some training. These types of people already know to look for some of the challenges that they will see every day, so getting them acclimated and trained could be the next step in the learning process. Some of the best press operators I’ve seen over the years started in supporting roles, and they just needed the training and opportunity to step up into a more advanced position.

Press operators can make or break a busy shop’s ability to keep a schedule on track. There are myriad details that must be handled every day and your management staff can only oversee so many. The press operator position is one that takes care of leading that work group and pushing orders out the door. Really great ones are worth their weight in gold and deserve to be some of the highest-paid production employees in the shop.

Finding and training these gems is sometimes difficult, but if you know what to look for you can cultivate your own internally. Only time and training stand in your way.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt.