Problem solving, good pay, computer skills
Watch video: What does a CNC Machinist do?
CNC machinists transform chunks of metal into everything from complex airplane parts to manufacturing molds using computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines. A CNC machine is a highly technical, incredibly precise piece of manufacturing equipment that's controlled by a combination of computer programs and the operator. In other words: as a CNC machinist you'll probably spend more time using a computer than a wrench. If you like problem-solving, computers, and want a hands-on career, then CNC machining could be for you.

What is CNC?

How does a CNC machinist use technology?

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.

Title Duties
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.

Why CNC?

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.

Good pay

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.

Area Average Salary
Oregon $48,100
Washington $51,020
National Around $43,000
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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.

More Reasons

Team work. Machine shops are all about collaboration. It's a great path for people who value sharing ideas and learning from more experienced colleagues on the job.
Opportunity for ongoing education. As engineers design new types of machines and machine tools, CNC machinists have to constantly update their techniques.
Good for problem solvers. CNC machining is an automated process, but there are always things that need to be adjusted, new tools to be set up, or troubleshooting that needs to happen.

Is CNC right for me?

"A CNC machinist needs to be laid back, but also a problem-solver. In CNC machining, there are going to be things that don't go right and you can get rattled. Someone needs to be able to adapt and look for different solutions. Someone who is excited by these challenges is someone who's going to succeed."
— Ronnie Brittain, CNC Lead Instructor at NASCAR Technical Institute

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.

Why I became a machinist

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.
  • Be qualified to work as a CNC machine operator or set—up technician on completion
  • Learn skills like blueprint-reading valued by many employers
  • Learn to be a machinist while you get paid to work
  • Cost
  • Longer training period
  • More difficult to find

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.


If you're still in school, you can prepare by taking courses in metal shop, drafting, and blueprint reading. Computer courses are also helpful since you'll need to be comfortable with software. Math classes like trigonometry and algebra help since you'll need to make precise measurements.
CNC machinist apprentices study all aspects of the machinery trade: safety practices, CNC machine operation basics, metallurgy, computer-aided design (CAD), and CNC programming. They also learn math, physics, and geometric dimensions.
Enter your desired profession and location in this apprenticeship finder.
The first step is that engineers design concept machines that are then modeled as computer-aided design (CAD) drawings. These 3-D drawings are then translated into G-code. This sequence of code is responsible for controlling the speed, movement, and other variables that each tool must follow. That's where the CNC machinist comes in. They take that code and use it to create the design out of metal.

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