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Entrance to the Trade

( Originally Published 1930 )

Education and Training Required.—An eighth-grade education at least is required of every one who desires to be a compositor, but boys with a high-school education are usually given the preference. Every prospective printer should have a thorough knowledge of English so that he will be able to spell well, to punctuate, to divide words when necessary, to paragraph correctly, and to put in capital letters where they are needed. Arithmetic must also be studied and mastered if the boy wishes to become a skilled compositor. Education along the lines of civics, geography, literature, history, foreign languages, and commerce will be of value to those who intend to enter this trade, because a printer comes in contact with copy on a wide range of subjects; and, if he has a broad, general education, he will have less difficulty in understanding and preparing it for the press room.

In regard to technical training and education, it is advisable that boys who contemplate entering the compositor's trade should learn something about type-setting, proofing, and the process of imposition. If they wish to become linotype or monotype operators, they should try to become familiar with the operation of these machines. They should also have some knowledge of design, of lettering, and of color harmony; and they should gain the ability to interpret sketches, layouts, and diagrams. The necessary preparatory technical education can be secured at vocational or trade school or a technical high school prior to becoming an apprentice. In order to be a good proofreader, it is necessary to have a thorough knowledge of proofreader's marks and of the type used, together with a good general education. Generally, this position is occupied by men who have been expert printers.

Age of Entrance.—The majority of composing-room foremen or superintendents do not allow boys to enter the trade until they are either seventeen or eighteen. They do not hire them at a younger age, because such boys are usually not able to accept the responsibilities of the work, and are not old enough to understand the technical details. It is also true that, as a rule, boys under seventeen are not able to fulfill the educational requirements for entrance. It is advisable, therefore, for the majority of those who wish to become compositors to remain in school until they are at least seventeen years old or until they have completed some part of a high-school education.

Physical and Personal Requirements.—There are no special physical requirements demanded of printers. They should have good eye-sight, they should have the use of both hands, and their fingers should be nimble, in order to enable them to set and distribute type rapidly. The composing-room workers must be accurate, mentally alert, patient, systematic, and neat. In addition to these qualities, they should possess good memories, artistic sense, and the ability to do detailed work and to concentrate on the jobs which they are performing. Initiative, or the quality of being able to work without constant suggestions and orders from the foreman, is just as essential to success in this trade as it is in any other.

Methods of Entrance.—There are various ways in which a boy can learn the trade. He can enter as a helper in a composing-room and learn the trade by assisting the other workers. It is also possible to learn the trade by becoming an apprentice or a learner who is under contract to some employer. The apprenticeship system is in force in all of the newspaper composing rooms, but in the job shops no particular system prevails. Some take apprentices, while others desire only skilled workmen and errand boys. Many enter the printing plants as errand boys and become apprentices after they have shown that they are interested in the trade and have reached the age of seventeen or eighteen.

An apprentice is a learner who has made a contract with an employer to work for a certain period of time. In this trade the apprenticeship period is five years, and during that time the employer undertakes to teach the learner the fundamentals of the trade. He is usually taught to set type by hand, to make up type into page and job forms, and to lock up jobs for the presses. As a rule, he is given training in setting copy upon one or more of the composing machines during the last six months of the apprenticeship period. In addition to the work in the shop, he also attends a school for a half day or more each week for at least two years. Here he secures instruction in the technical features of the trade. He may also take correspondence courses offered by the various unions and organizations of master printers. The public schools also conduct evening classes where the technical details of the trade may be mastered by other workers in the industry as well as by apprentices. The apprenticeship training combined with technical education is the best way to learn the work of the compositor, because it is supervised by men of experience who make it their business to teach the beginners.

The apprentice may become a journeyman after he has completed his training. He must pass an examination before he can call himself a journeyman and receive the wages to which such a worker is entitled. When he has reached this stage, he is considered able to work at all branches of the trade; but, as a rule, most men specialize in either machine composition, layout work, stonework, make-up work, or in any one of the other divisions found in the different composing rooms.


The composing-rooms of most cities operate from 44 to 48 hours per week. The job shops close on Saturday afternoons, but the newspaper composing-rooms do not. Night work is also carried on in those newspaper plants that issue morning editions, and in the afternoon newspaper composing rooms a few men are employed at night also to set up "ads."

The wages of apprentices in most places range from $12.50 to $15 per week at the beginning of the period of training, and they advance gradually until they almost equal those of the journeymen during the last six months of the apprenticeship. The journeymen receive a minimum wage which is somewhat higher in the news-paper plants than it is in the job shops. Many are able to earn more than this minimum by efficient and speedy work.

The composing-room workers are employed steadily all year round, as a rule. In the job shops there may be a falling off of the work during July and August, and in the newspaper plants there may be an increase in advertising composition work during the periods leading up to the various holidays as well as during the time of seasonal change. The increased amount of work is usually taken care of by an added force of compositors and machine operators.

There are practically no dangers in this line of work since all the machinery that is used in a composing room is usually well guarded. The proofreader may suffer some eyestrain due to the constant reading, and the close application to the work required of the hand and machine compositors may cause a nervous strain. The modern print shops, however, are usually well lighted, well equipped with safety devices, and well provided with conveniences for the comfort of the workmen.


The Promotional Steps.—The printing industry offers opportunities for advancement to all who enter it. But those who wish to gain promotion must prepare for it by securing practical experience, a general education, and technical training. It is possible to enter a printing-plant as an errand boy. Promotion to the position of apprentice can be gained by the boy who shows an interest by his willingness to work and by his general conduct in the shop. Upon the completion of his apprenticeship, he becomes a journeyman with all the privileges and the responsibilities of the position. As a journeyman, he may specialize in hand composition, machine composition, stonework, or one of the other branches of the work carried on in the composing rooms either in a job shop or in a newspaper plant. In the job shop, the next promotional step is to the position of assistant foreman in charge of one part of the work, while in the newspaper plant the journeyman may become the head of one of the departments. Advancement from these positions is then to that of foreman of the composing room in both types of shops. Future promotion is not in a regular line from this point. Some men have become superintendents of entire printing plants, while others have become owners of shops. Journeymen also have gone directly into ownership of shops instead of remaining as employees of someone else. However, promotion has come only to those who have been prepared for the higher positions.

The Value of Education.—A successful industrial career requires more than practical experience alone as a foundation. The successful men of today have had some kind of educational preparation either in the full-time day schools, the part-time schools, the evening schools, or in home-study courses. Due to the increasing competition for positions in industry, it is more than ever necessary to round out one's practical experience with some general and technical education, in order to gain advancement. This is as true of the compositor's trade as of any other.

Technical education of the kind which can be secured at the vocational or trade school and the technical high school is valuable to the prospective compositor because it acquaints him with the work of the composing room and teaches him the principles upon which that work is based. In addition, it enables him to shorten the period of apprenticeship because time credit is given for the work done in this field at these institutions. Advanced technical courses which are given in the night-school classes will prove to be of value to those who are looking into the future, when, after the practical experience has been gained, they will be in line for supervisory, and executive positions. This type of education will prepare them to handle the more important jobs and to teach those who are working for them. Included in the technical training should be the study of such subjects as cost accounting for printers, estimating, business management, and advertising. This added preparation will be valuable to the man who wishes to open his own shop.

General education, which includes a study of such subjects as literature, geography, civics, and history, is of value both in business and out of it. Those who possess such a training are broadened by it with the result that they have a wider understanding of the problems of their customers. This makes them better and more successful business men. There is another side of our lives, however, which is not connected with the problems of money making. The problem of the proper use of our spare time and the problems of government and public affairs are also important. Acquaintance with good literature, with art and music, and with other forms of culture will enable one to make good use of any leisure time he may have. A study of civics and history will familiarize one with the organization of our government, the principles upon which it is based, and the struggles that were necessary to make it independent. Such a study will give one the ability to take an intelligent part in the affairs of our government and thus will make better citizens of all of us.

A democracy like ours is successful only when all the people take some interest in its affairs. A broad, general education combined with skill in a particular trade will assist us to do our duty to our country as well as to ourselves.

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