What is CNC?
CNC machinists usually start with a blueprint or computer design file. They use that to program the machines that produce precision metal parts (precision for a CNC machinist means accurate to within the width of a single strand of hair—so they're not joking). What kind of parts? Everything from titanium bone screws for orthopedic implants to automobile pistons to simple steel bolts.
Within the world of CNC there are a few different kinds of machinists with slightly different job descriptions.
|Operating Machinist||Responsible for the day-to day-functioning of the machines. When a piece needs to be manufactured, they're the one operating the machine, ensuring the piece is cut accurately, and sometimes hand finishing it.|
|Precision Machinist||Similar to operating machinists, but generally focus on making one unique part rather than manufacturing the same parts in large quantities.|
|Set Up Machinist||Make sure that everything is in working order. They are in charge of monitoring the equipment, adjusting offsets, and performing other tasks needed to maintain smooth operations.|
|Programming Machinist||Specialize in writing CNC programs. If a program runs into a glitch during a test run, they will also be called into modify existing programs.|
The one thing all types machinists have in common is they need working knowledge of math and computers (skills that training programs help develop) and they're also good at problem solving and time management.
It's not going anywhere
Projected job openings in the US by 2026: 404,700. -US Bureau of Labor Statistics
There's a common misconception that manufacturing and machining jobs are “dying out”. In fact, the opposite is true. Increasing demand for mass production of automotive parts is expected to fuel demand for CNC machinists. And nothing from cars to plastics can exist without the skilled workers who manufacture the molds and parts.
The average annual salary for a CNC machinist in the US in 2017 was around $43,000. And in some areas of the US, the average salary was much higher.
Lots of Variety
Some CNC machinists focus on efficiency: learning how to make thousands of units of one single part in a high-quality, efficient way. Other machinists will focus on the design of a single unique part. And others will train exclusively on how to program the CNC machine. Each focus requires a different sets of skills and training. So, while some tasks are repetitive, there's still a lot of variety and room for growth within the machining industry.
Is CNC right for me?
Want to know if CNC machining is right for you? Ask yourself:
- Do you have a lot of patience?
- Do you enjoy problem solving?
- Do you like working with computers and technology?
- Are you detail oriented?
- Do you like working with a team?
Or see what kind of skills and interests led others to follow this career path.
How would I get started in CNC?
To get started, you'll need a high school diploma or the equivalent. While it's possible to learn on the job, most CNC machinists learn through a combination of structured classes and practical training. This usually happens through a training program. Sponsored apprenticeships are also possible, but admission to these is highly competitive.
|Getting Started: CNC Training Program or Apprenticeship?|
|CNC Training Program||Apprenticeship|
|Cost||$2,800-$13,000||None with sponsorship|
|Length||8-12 months||1-4 years (many people do an apprenticeship in addition to a training program)|
|What||Full time training programs offered at community colleges or trade schools||On—the—job training is offered by manufacturing facilities, machinists' unions, vocational schools and community colleges.|
|Advantages|| || |
|Disadvantages|| || |
Many machinists also go on to earn advanced credentials from the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). Getting certified as a CNC setup programmer, certified journeyworker, or certified machinist can make you more competitive for job opportunities and better placed for promotions.