Computer Numerical Control (CNC) machines cut, drill, shape and finish raw metal (or wood) into a consumer-ready product. CNC machining allows for high-speed mass production of products with the highest level of engineering precision. Everything from wooden signs to engine blocks uses CNC machining.
At 13, my grandpa showed me an ad in the paper. “Learn CNC, and you will never go hungry,” he said. “And, look, they’ll even pay you to learn.” I hungrily read the advertisement, which offered $10 per hour in 1998 to learn CNC.
When I turned 18, I went into building homes instead of learning CNC, opting for the fresh breeze of a job site over the exhaust fans of a factory floor.
More recently, my little brother has shown some interest in CNC. We’ve been learning the software together, running his 3d printer and the hobby CNC router we bought on Amazon. He and I are hands-on people, so it gives us something fun to do together.
It’s paid off for him; he’s gotten two jobs in college fixing their 3D printers and is well on his way to being a computer developer. I think he overshot the goal a little bit. There is no way he is only going to be a machinist. But it is neat that he is comfortable with the concepts from design to production.
Like my grandfather said, if you can operate CNC machinery, you will never go hungry.
What Is A CNC Machinist?
CNC machinists operate CNC machinery. They are central to the manufacturing industry. They set up CNC machines for each task, controlling material feed, machine speed and path of the cut. Ultimately, they drill, grind and cut the material to ensure the proper end product is being produced. When there is an issue, they generally are knowledgeable about how to fix it.
Being a Good CNC machinist comes with experience. The best ones I have worked with not only understand the coding aspect of their work, but they also understand the limitations of their equipment. They optimize the programming to reduce artifacts and even lengthen the lifespan of bits between sharpening.
CNC machinists are the ones who take the engineering concepts and bring them into existence. Sometimes the job description might have the job title of “fabricator,” “craftsman,” “machine operator,” or “craftsman.” They always bring a strong mechanical aptitude and have a strong eye toward quality assurance.
Due to the technical nature of the job, they will need to master technical writing, drafting, Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) and have strong comprehension skills.
As a result, CNC machinists are an essential part of every engineering team. They run lathes, 5-axis machines and mill-turn machines.
Here is a look at the steps to becoming a CNC machinist, as well as the job outlook and average salary.
What Is The Day To Day Life Of A CNC Machinist Like?
Becoming a CNC machinist is an ideal career choice for people who love computers but who also want to create physical items. It is a perfect combination of computer knowledge and hands-on mechanical skills. CNC machinists typically work in a factory setting.
There are boring days when everything goes as planned. On those days, you will be monitoring the machines, looking for optimizations, working on quality assurance and training new staff.
There are even days when you spend most of the day watching a machine run.
That said, there are plenty of days where you will be hands-on with the programming, the equipment and the processes. It can be especially frustrating when you are starting a new product. New products will invariably have challenges in their launch, and your problem-solving skills will be on full display.
As a CNC machinist, you will make sure the machine is operating properly, check stock and change out bits as needed. You will be communicating your observations to CNC programmers who need to adjust the code (or you will be doing the CNC programming, depending on your skill level). There may be real-time adjustments that you need to make between production runs.
You may be over multiple machines and oversee junior machinists. Or, you may be assigned to one machine.
CNC machinists work in a factory setting. Overtime is common, and you will generally start off on an overnight shift for a few years before you get the seniority to move to the day shift. As you gain tenure, you will be over multiple CNC operators.
- Creation and Validation of CNC Programs
- Creation of Tooling Control Sheets to document setup & operation.
- Swap out Drill bits and set up the machine
- Verify that the finished product matches the blueprint
- Loading Raw materials
- Monitoring machine for proper operation
- Cleaning and Maintaining the CNC equipment
- Following company and OSHA safety protocols
You need to master every step of the CNC machining process. While CNC machinists are more likely to work with the hardware, the difference between being a machinist or a CNC programmer is often negligible.
CNC Machinists’ Education Requirements
At a minimum, the applicant will need a High School Diploma or GED. Most manufacturers will also prefer that an applicant can demonstrate several years of experience as a CNC operator or, in lieu of that, a postsecondary CNC machining program.
Most community colleges offer a CNC programming class. On-the-job training is also an option. Here are the 3 fastest ways to become a CNC machinist. Having a good grasp of algebra and trigonometry before you begin will give you a headstart in this industry.
If you live in a factory town, most community colleges will also offer a complete, 2-year associate’s degree in something like “Precision Machining Technology.” These educational programs generally include classes in things like “Machining Fundamentals,” “Technical Drafting,” and ” Blueprint Reading.” You will also complete general education credits that qualify you to continue your education in a bachelor’s degree program. A handful of machinists will continue on in a business track, setting themselves up to one day run the factory floor.
CNC machining certification is an excellent way to get started. Most community colleges will pull out the core training requirements for a CNC machinist and combine them into a 2-semester certification course. This allows the student to learn the trade in less than a year. Often these students will already be working in a factory setting. They will use this certificate on their resume to transfer to a new role inside the company they are working in.
Desperate for staff, many companies are willing to offer tuition assistance or on-the-job training. Sometimes this training is extremely informal and may take a year or more to complete, depending on the availability of your trainer and business needs. However, some of the programs have intensive 9-week training courses with ongoing training. The advantage of these formal apprenticeships is that you simultaneously build a resume along with your training.
Skills Of A Good CNC Machinist
CNC machines are extremely expensive, detailed and fast-moving computer-operated equipment. You must be detail-oriented. Read this list and see how well it describes your aptitude:
- Detail-Oriented: You will be working in precise measurements of .004″. How comfortable are you in getting the details right? As a CNC operator, you live in the details.
- Math Skills: You will constantly be translating schematics. Trigonometry suddenly becomes your friend. If you love doing math, you’ll love this job.
- Problem-solving skills: Nothing ever goes right. It could be an unexpected shearing force or that your company had to switch to a new bit supplier. Solving unexpected and complicated problems is key to your success.
- Communication Skills: A CNC machinist is critical to the success of a project, but often they are not consulted until it comes time to fire up the machine. This means that many of the decisions have been made. You must be able to communicate well with all of the stakeholders in a project.
- Fitness: You will be working in a hot factory and standing on concrete for hours a day. This is not a job for the week.
- Dexterity: When working with heavy machinery, you need to have good dexterity. Strong awareness of your physical presence is critical when it comes to keeping all of your limbs out of moving machinery.
- Work Ethic: While many companies are catering to Gen Z, this is one of those fields where you are expected to show up on time and work your required overtime.
Building A Resume
Learning to run a CNC machine is only half of the challenge. You may be the most skilled individual in the world, but jobs are scarce until you have built the resume to back it up. Employers don’t want to make a blind bet on a candidate who recently graduated from college.
So how do you build a CNC Machinist resume? By working for manufacturing companies in any available role. The metalworking skills you learn in cutting metal, painting metal and handling raw materials will transfer to any role as a CNC machine operator.
Having 2 or more years of experience in metalworking skills will demonstrate to future employers that you thrive in a factory environment. When combined with a CNC program, it makes you an extremely attractive candidate. Many companies promote from within.
CNC Machining Certification
NIMS is one of the only American companies to offer a CNC certification. It is not essential to be NIMS certified, but having the certifications can help you demonstrate expertise. There are multiple certifications you can obtain, including
- CNC Set-up programmer
- Certified Journeyworker
- NIMS certified machinist
For the self-taught individual, having even a single NIMS certification can help them stand out. For example, an entry-level employee could master the CNC Lathe Operations certificate fairly quickly.
What’s great about NIMS is how affordable they are. Textbook rental of Precision Machining Technology starts off at about $37 (2022 prices). For the price of a nice meal, someone can learn CNC milling.
Industries That Use CNC Machines
CNC machining touches every facet of American life. Here are some of the most common manufacturing industries that use CNC machining.
- Medical: Implants, Orthotic Devices, Shielded Enclosures, Medical Instruments
- Aerospace: Airfoils, Antennae, Busines, Manifolds
- Transportation: Cars parts, Truck parts, Freight Train Parts
- Oil: Valves, Pistons, Cylinders, Pins, Drill Bits
- Marine: Electronic parts, Propellers, Boat Parts, Fiberglass molds
They are also used for carving out foam molds that are then used for fabricating gaskets and other rubber components.
How Long Does CNC Machinist Training Take?
It takes between 2 to 4 years to be job-ready. You will need both formal training and hands-on experience. On the short end, an on-the-job training program or certification program at your local community college will require 2 years of education and experience. Having a two-year degree with two years of experience is the sweet spot of competitiveness and where the more lucrative CNC machinist jobs begin hiring.
Career Path & Salary
After learning how to operate a CNC machine and gaining 3 to 5 years of experience, you are ready to climb up in the company. According to the Bureau of Labor Services, the 2021 median annual salary of a CNC machinist is $47,940 per year. Yearly job growth is at 7% or the median job growth for all industries.
A quick scroll through job listings supports these figures. Most roles pay between $20 and $22 per hour, with the highest listing we found offering $54,700 per year for a Journeyman Tool and Die Maker who had both CNC and welding experience.
To become a CNC machinist, you need to:
- Obtain A High School Diploma
- Pursue CNC machinist training through a trade school or on-the-job training
- Gain experience as a CNC machine operator through apprenticeships
- Apply for a full-time role as a CNC machinist