Spotlights

Job Description

Modern society is in love with products, both large and small. From cars to computers, we can’t live without our manufactured goods. And without CNC Machinists and Operators, many (if not most) of the products we use and often rely on wouldn’t exist. These skilled tradespeople use a variety of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines and equipment to produce a wide range of precision metal parts. 

Machinists and Operators have similar duties, but Machinists have more experience and may supervise Operators. They input instructions into the CNC machine they’re working with to ensure the parts are cut and crafted as needed. They may produce one specific part over and over, or have a set of parts they need to make batches of each day. In some cases, their job is to repair or replace a broken part. 

CNC machines can be very dangerous to work with, which is why CNC Machinists and Operators must be highly trained in their proper usage. In addition to using these machines, Machinists and Operators may also utilize lasers and electrified wires as they work, adding even more risk into the equation! This makes it even more imperative to strictly follow safety protocols. It’s also why most employees in this trade learn their skills through a combination of academic courses and supervised apprenticeships. 

Rewarding Aspects of Career
  • Making parts that are vital to the completion of much-needed products
  • Contributing to the overall economy by providing a steady stream of parts used in almost all industries 
  • Plenty of independence, for those who don’t enjoy customer-facing jobs or roles with a lot of managerial oversight 
2021 Employment
342,600
2031 Projected Employment
350,700
The Inside Scoop
Job Responsibilities

Working Schedule

CNC Machinists and Operators work full-time, with overtime necessary depending on goals and timeframes. Their duties are usually performed indoors in factories or shops, but work may require them to travel to various locations to do on-site repairs. 

Typical Duties

  • Discuss final product needs and costs of producing them in the desired quantities
  • Review reference files (blueprints, drawings, etc.) and written descriptions and specifications of desired parts and items to be made
  • Create new work sketches 
  • Determine the order of sequence of the work process before starting
  • Use measuring instruments to determine the dimensions of the final fabricated pieces
  • Verify the tolerance of materials to be machined
  • Use computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) programs, as needed
  • Set up, program, and operate computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine tools to make, or machine, precision parts
  • Ensure program updates are compatible with CNC machines
  • Adjust various components of CNC machines, such as cutting blades, holding fixtures, etc.
  • Determine the type of blanks to use in creating a specified workpiece
  • Mark metal stock where cuts will be made
  • Wear required personal protective equipment and follow established safety protocols
  • Keep an eye on CNC machine feeds and speeds 
  • Create parts using processes such as turning, milling, drilling, shaping, and grinding
  • Screen items after cutting for defects and quality. Make adjustments to machinery, if necessary
  • Diagnose machine errors and make minor repairs. Disassemble as needed
  • Verify that completed products comply with requirements
  • Remove waste material from workspaces and recycle or dispose of it properly 

Additional Responsibilities

  • Stay up-to-date on technical manuals 
  • Train and mentor new CNC Machinists and Operators, technologists, and technicians
  • Keep work areas clean and perform routine maintenance on machines
  • Discuss technical issues with the appropriate personnel 
  • Offer advice during the project planning phase, if asked
Skills Needed on the Job

Soft Skills

  • Alertness
  • Analytical
  • Cautious
  • Compliance-oriented
  • Critical thinking
  • Detail-oriented
  • Discipline
  • Patience 
  • Planning and organization
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Sound judgment 
  • Stamina
  • Teamwork
  • Time management 

Technical Skills

  • Machinist programs such as Armchair Machinist and Machinists’ Calculator
  • Computer-aided design programs like Autodesk AutoCAD, CATIA, PTC Creo Parametric, and SolidCAM
  • Computer-aided manufacturing software like Autodesk Fusion 360 and CNC Mastercam
  • Industrial control software such as EditCNC or Mazak Mazatrol
  • Procedure management programs like Hexagon Metrology PC-DMIS
  • Familiarity with tools and equipment such as micrometers, vernier calipers, lathes, milling machines, shapers, and grinders, drilling machines, cutting tools, lasers, and water jets
  • Familiarity with processes such as metalworking, brazing, heat-treating, and welding
  • Familiarity with hydraulic systems, electrical wiring, lubricants, and batteries
  • Familiarity with various types of metal and metal alloys, including steel, brass, aluminum, copper, zinc, lead, vanadium, and manganese
Different Types of Organizations
  • Employment services
  • Machinery manufacturing
  • Machine shops
  • Transportation equipment manufacturing
Expectations and Sacrifices

CNC Machinists and Operators are relied on to mass-produce products that conform to very specific requirements. Thus their work must be meticulous, even under pressure to meet deadlines. They have to take into consideration multiple factors, including what metals to use and how best to cut or shape them. Factories can be loud and dangerous, requiring workers to wear protective gear, such as goggles and hearing protection. 

They need to carefully follow safety procedures to avoid injury to themselves or others in the area. The day-to-day job requires plenty of stamina because workers are usually on their feet, often in a bent or leaning positions. The repetition of machining parts can get monotonous after a while, but workers have to keep their focus because of the inherent hazards of the job. There can be long periods of working alone, so Machinists sometimes need to look beyond their place of employment for socializing.  

Current Trends

There are many CNC machine trends shaping the future of the industry. One is the development of machines capable of higher speeds, including faster spindle speeds, faster feed capacity, faster computing, and faster tool changing. These increases don’t diminish precision, because CNC machines are getting more accurate at the same time! 

Along with these advancements, 3D printing is starting to share some of the workloads to make parts that CNC machines finish. Another change is the use of digital twins which “duplicate a CNC machine and its environment, including its setup on the shop floor, within the CAM software, providing accurate toolpath simulation” in order to “reduce or eliminate any surprises that may occur during the machining process.”

What kinds of things did people in this career enjoy doing when they were younger…

People who get into machine-related career fields usually enjoy working with their hands and feel comfortable using tools and stationary heavy equipment. They might have enjoyed math and computer programming courses in high school or liked doing projects in shop classes. 

Machinists can collaborate with others but don’t mind being on their own for long periods. They might have been very independent growing up and may have always wanted a job where they have some freedom to do their work without a lot of interaction with others.

Education and Training Needed

Education Needed

  • CNC Machinists and Operators need at least a high school diploma or GED
  • Many workers in this field pursue a certificate or associate’s degree at a community college or technical school where they brush up on their math skills and learn how to read blueprints, work with metal, use hand tools and CAD or CAM programs, and how to operate CNC machines
  • Other common courses include:
    • Geometric dimensioning and tolerancing 
    • Multi-axis milling and turning
    • Precision measurement
    • Programming
    • Shop safety
  • Taking formal education classes prior to applying for jobs isn’t necessary, but can help make you more competitive during your job search
    • Candidates with more qualifications may have better luck finding jobs where they can then learn remaining skills via On-the-Job training
    • They might also land a sponsored supervised apprenticeship!
    • Note, workers who are learning OJT or via apprenticeships may still be required to take classes outside of duty hours, to supplement what is being learned at work
  • Optional certification programs can help Machinists and Operators qualify for advancement. Below are just a few of the certifications options out there:
  • There are also manufacturer and software-specific certs available!
Things to look for in an University
  • CNC Machinists and Operators don’t need to attend a four-year university, but decide if you want to complete a certificate or associate’s at a technical school or community college
  • Consider the cost of tuition, discounts, and local scholarship opportunities (in addition to federal aid)
  • Think about your schedule and flexibility when deciding whether to enroll in an on-campus, online, or hybrid program. Many relevant courses may need to be done in-person to get hands-on experience
  • Review the program’s job placement statistics for graduates
Things to do in High School and College
  • Check out Stecker Machine’s What is a CNC Operator? article for a great overview of the day-to-day 
  • Sign up for plenty of math (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry), physics, computer science, materials science, and shop classes in high school
  • Consider learning about mechanical drawing and blueprint reading through self-study
  • Take ad hoc classes online, from Coursera, Udemy, or other sites
  • Enroll in a community college or vocational/technical school program to learn CNC machining
  • Engage in a fitness program that can build your strength and stamina
  • Get some real-world job experience via part-time jobs related to machining or shop work
  • Review job postings in advance to see what the average requirements are
  • Keep track of contacts who might serve as future job references 
  • Study books, articles, and video tutorials related to CNC machining tools, programs, and processes
  • Participate in online forums to ask questions and learn from seasoned pros 
  • Engage with professional organizations to learn, share, make friends, and grow your network (see our list of Resources > Websites)
  • Start crafting a resume early. Keep adding to it as you go, so you don’t lose track of anything
How to Land your 1st job
  • Check out job portals such as Indeed, Simply Hired, Glassdoor, and Craigslist
  • Get some practical shop work experience under your belt before applying, if possible
  • Seek out apprenticeships sponsored by employers, unions, or trade associations
  • Ask working CNC Machinists and Operators for job-seeking tips
  • Get a certificate or associate’s degree. It isn’t always needed to get started but may put you ahead of the competition
    • According to O*Net, about 33% of Machinists have a post-secondary (after high school) certificate, and 17% have “some college, no degree.” The rest are working with just their high school diploma or GED
  • Ask your school’s career center for help connecting with recruiters and job fairs
  • Ask potential references in advance to see if they’ll recommend you or write letters of reference
  • Check out Machinist resume templates and review Machinist job interview questions
  • At interviews, be honest and show a motivated attitude and eagerness to learn 
How to Climb the Ladder
  • Expect to start out in entry-level CNC Operator roles then work your way up to CNC Machinist positions
  • Pay close attention during OJT and any classes the employer sends you to
  • Stay positive and motivated. Do solid work, follow procedures, and stay safe
  • Demonstrate that you can be trusted to work independently. Set the example for others to follow
  • Knock out relevant certifications to enhance your skills
  • Ask your supervisor how you can improve your knowledge and skills to better serve the company
  • Study manufacturer and software guides. Become the go-to expert and make yourself invaluable
  • Learn all you can from those with more experience (but also keep in mind to follow procedures as directed by your employer)
  • Keep your cool under pressure, and treat everyone with respect
  • Collaborate effectively on teams, stay focused, and demonstrate leadership
  • Train new workers thoroughly. Their mistakes could reflect back on your training
  • Stay engaged with professional organizations and unions, such as the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
Plan B

Laboring in a shop or factory on CNC machines can be tiring, monotonous, or even lonely work. Many people enjoy it, but it’s not a job for everyone. If you’re interested in exploring similar occupations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests the following:

  • Boilermakers
  • Industrial Machinery Mechanics, Machinery Maintenance Workers, and Millwrights
  • Metal and Plastic Machine Workers
  • Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers

In addition, O*Net features these careers:

  • Lathe and Turning Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic
  • Milling and Planing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders
  • Multiple Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders
  • Tool and Die Makers

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