How to Become a CNC Machinist

If you have a passion for technology and design, a knack for precision and detailed tasks, and desire a career beyond the typical “desk job,” a career in CNC machining could be the perfect path for you.

Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines are the backbone of American industry. These machines cut, shape and finish raw materials like metal, plastic and wood into usable manufacturing components. CNC machines are extremely complex – they must be calibrated and operated with precision and it takes a full team of people to keep those machines operating smoothly.

What is a CNC Machinist?

CNC machinists work with CNC heavy machinery from setup through operation. CNC machines cut, grind and drill into raw materials so that they can be used in all manner of manufacturing cases. CNC machinists are responsible for overseeing the machines and making adjustments that control speed, material feed and path of the cut.

CNC machinists are critical members of an industrial engineering team.  They are builders, fabricators, mechanics, craftsmen and quality assurance all rolled into one package. Machines have come a long way over the last several decades and they are “smarter” than ever before. However, machines are not fully autonomous. They still require humans to tell them what to do, monitor their performance and ensure precise output. Despite what you may have heard, machines are not taking over the world, so for the foreseeable future, the industry will rely on CNC machinists.

What Does a CNC Machinist Do?

Each day, a CNC machinist must ensure that equipment is set up properly, working well and producing quality, usable materials. They must keep an eye on capacity, materials stock, and maintenance. They may also be tasked with doing quality control checks on output and reporting any issues to CNC programmers who write the code that tells the machine what to do, so they can make real-time adjustments as necessary. Depending on the job, a CNC machinist may work on many different machines on the floor or they may be responsible for a single, complex machine.

CNC machinists typically work in a factory setting. Although many work full time during regular business hours, overtime may be common, as are evening and weekend work. Job responsibilities also vary depending on where a machinist is in his or her career. Junior machinists typically work under close supervision, while senior and supervisory CNC machinists are often responsible for an entire team and must work closely with CNC programmers and other members of the industrial engineering staff.

Educational Requirements for a CNC Machinist

CNC machine work is highly technical and requires significant training and preparation. CNC machinists typically must possess a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. From there, they gain specific CNC sills through technical schools or community colleges. Some machinists hold associate degrees, but a degree is not necessarily required. Educational programs cover a wide range of subjects from math and engineering to computer and technology. They also typically include classes on CAD/CAM operation, design technology and more.

Certification – whether a machinist holds a degree or not – is often preferred, as it demonstrates proficiency in the skills required to successfully operate CNC machines. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) offers three levels of machining certification that are popular among both machinists and employers. The NIMS credentialing program assesses a machinist’s skills against national standards, from entry-level programming and operating of CNC equipment to mastery of CNC milling and turning. While certification is voluntary, industry experts agree that it is useful in career advancement.

How Long Does It Take to Become a CNC Machine Operator?

Experience is the most important factor for CNC machinists, which is why many pros choose a degree or certification path. Many of these programs require apprenticeships, internships or externships which give students a chance to build real-world experience. Some companies do offer training programs for new machinists, as well. Typically it takes around four or five years of combined education and on-the-job training to become fully trained.

What Skills are Required to Become a CNC Machinist?

CNC machines are extremely complex, computer-driven pieces of equipment. The work requires precision, and not everyone has what it takes to become a CNC machinist. Required skills for this career path include:

  • Math skills: CNC machinists work with numbers and measurements all day long, so they must be comfortable with math.
  • Technical writing and comprehension skills: CNC machinists must be able to read schematics and complex instructions to ensure items are designed and built correctly.
  • Problem-solving skills: Machines are prone to errors, and errors in production can spell disaster for an organization. CNC machinists must be able to solve problems quickly and independently to ensure peak performance and output.
  • Attention to detail: The most minuscule error in measurement can make output unusable. Because precision is so important, CNC machinists must have a keen eye for detail.
  • Mechanical and technical skills: CNC machines are controlled by computers and operators must understand how CAD/CAM technology works.
  • Teamwork skills: CNC machinists do not work in bubbles. They are part of the entire industrial engineering team and they must be able to work effectively as part of a group.
  • Manual dexterity and accuracy: Developing parts and getting production down to the exact inch or millimeter specified by design.
  • Adaptability: As a CNC machinist, you’re going to face challenges. It is important to be able to adapt to the situation, no matter what comes up.
  • Fitness and stamina: CNC machinists work long hours doing repetitive movements. There is a lot of standing and walking involved, and it is important to be physically fit.
  • Communication skills: Professionals must be comfortable listening and following directions, asking questions when they arise and explaining things clearly to supervisors, subordinates and peers.
  • Time management: There are multiple steps in the CNC machining process. And there are often opportunities to make it more efficient. Having an idea about how long each step may take, load times of raw materials and the time needed to set up the different tools are important in figuring out how long a job is going to take.
  • Assertiveness: This is more of a soft skill, but it is an important one. CNC machinists must be comfortable stopping production immediately when they find an error, even if it means upsetting people down the production line.
  • Commitment to safety: This is also more of a soft skill, but it is critical for success. Heavy equipment is dangerous and CNC operators must be extremely conscious about all safety protocols when working with and around machinery.
  • Strong work ethic: Working in a machine shop isn’t easy. It takes discipline to stay focused amid the stress, noise, and daily problems that crop up.

What is the Average Salary of a CNC Machinist?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual salary for CNC machinists is around $45,000. Indeed cites a similar figure of around $43,000 per year. Glassdoor lists a slightly lower median annual salary of $40,000. Keep in mind that these are averages – senior CNC machinists can make much more than these figures and entry-level machinists may make much less.

It is important to remember that Indeed and Glassdoor draw only from jobs posted to their site, so their data is somewhat limited. It is also important to remember that salaries can vary greatly from job to job-based on company size, industry, geographic location, the experience of the machinist, responsibilities of the machinist and the complexity of the machines they work with.

Job Outlook for a CNC Machinist

The BLS is predicting the job outlook for CNC machinists to remain even through 2026. The biggest impact on job openings could be future investment in American manufacturing as well as mass retirements by Baby Boomers over the next several years.

Are You Ready To Work As A CNC Machinist?

If you are a new or experienced CNC machinist looking for exciting career opportunities, consider partnering with an expert recruiter. At Integrative Staffing Group, our team specializes in making placements for skilled industrial employees. We partner with hundreds of employers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida and across the country that are looking for reliable, skilled job CNC machinists like you.

With ISG, you get advantages like:

  • Recruiters who truly care about your talents, interests and career goals.
  • Experts in manufacturing and recruiting who understand the industry inside and out.
  • Access to unadvertised job opportunities that you will not find anywhere else.
  • The ability to choose from flexible, well-paying job assignments.
  • Get an inside track to career positions. Over 70% of our assignments have gone direct hire.
  • A variety of hours, location and types of companies to choose from.
  • Show off your skills with our free skills assessments.

Additionally, eligible employees can receive holiday bonuses, vacation pay, 401(k) plan, referral incentives, tuition discounts and medical benefits.  Feel free to contact our team directly to learn more about the ways we can help you achieve your career goals.

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