A Step-By-Step Guide to Become a CNC Machinist

CNC Machine

If you have skills as a CNC machinist, you are in the driver’s seat. These jobs are expected to increase by about 7% through 2030, making this a promising career if you’re seeking to skip college and go straight to earning good money right out of high school. Even entry-level jobs pay close to $50k and given the nature of the work you do; job security is a given.

So, what is a CNC machinist? What’s a day in the life like for these professionals? What skills will you learn to do this job well? Why is a CNC machinist not the typical blue-collar job?

We have answers that will surprise you (hint: the first word in CNC is “computer”).

What is a CNC Machinist

The CNC machinist job description bridges the gap between mechanical skills and computer acumen. CNC stands for computer numeric controlled, and as you might imagine, this is a job for those that love math, logical thinking, and yes—computers—as much as it is a job for people who like to make something with their hands.

A CNC machinist works with machinery that manufactures component parts from aluminum, brass, plastics, steel, and more. The products you create will show up later on in everything from lifesaving healthcare equipment to the defense industry to automobiles, trains, and airplanes. The importance of your work can’t be discounted. This is a precision job for people who like math, science, engineering, and computers. What the typical CNC machinist job description won’t tell you is if your machine is calculated at the wrong setting by even a hair’s width—products malfunction, which in the long run could be quite dangerous.

This is the opposite of the kind of blue-collar position that requires a blunt tool like a sledgehammer and a lot of force. Instead, the job of a CNC machinist requires precision controls, meticulous attention to detail, and an extreme level of care and caution when fulfilling orders in the workplace.

What Does a CNC Machinist Do?

CNC machinists work every day with computer numerical control equipment. One CNC machinist described it this way, “A CNC machine is a computer-controlled beast that screams, roars, and thunders as it rips away metals like aluminum, steel and titanium with shocking precision.” There are different kinds of CNC machines, from grinders and mills to robotic machining cells.

You may be called upon to read blueprints of computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) or computer-aided design (CAD) files. You may use computer code to input a product design into the CNC machine. The machine itself will follow your programming and cut, shape, drill, and grind metals, plastics, or other materials. These parts will be used in a variety of fields, such as:

  • Aerospace
  • Aviation
  • Healthcare
  • Information technology
  • Transportation
  • And more

What’s particularly interesting about the job is this; you cannot create these component parts by hand. That’s expected to expand the demand for skilled CNC machinists in the coming years.

How to Become a CNC Machinist

Do you have what it takes to become a CNC machinist? Do you:

  • Enjoy working with computers and numbers?
  • Focus precisely on the small details?
  • Like building things with your hands?
  • Have good time management skills and are very organized?
  • Enjoy working on your own as well as with a team?
  • Have a strong work ethic?
  • Love fixing a mechanical problem and enjoy tinkering around with machines?

Some companies will apprentice you to become a CNC machinist, however, it’s more common now to attend school to obtain a CNC machinist certification. Training times in these vocational centers can vary, but the best schools will even allow you to apprentice on the job. Typically, 36-months gets you to the CNC machinist certification but some programs may be accelerated. You can expect these programs to combine hands-on training with traditional lectures and studies.

What is the Average Salary of a CNC Machinist?

The salary of a CNC machinist has gone up over the years, particularly as baby boomers have left the job market, leaving plenty of open jobs for these professionals. In addition to excellent job security, you can expect advancement opportunities. What is the average salary for a CNC machinist?

  • Payscale reports the average salary as just over $20.00 in 2022. ($20.24 per hour.) They suggest many CNC machinists also make production bonuses. This drives the salary range somewhere between $31,000 for entry-level to around $60,000 for experienced CNC machinists.
  • Salary.com lists the average salary of a CNC machinist as $22, with a range from $20 to $26 per hour. They mention those with a CNC machinist certification often earn more.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the average annual wage for machinists, in general, was $47,730 as of one year ago. They don’t list CNC machinists specifically, but they do say tool and die makers average a salary ranging from $30,220 to $68,250.

What Skills do CNC Machinists Need?

The CNC machinist role isn’t easy or simple. That’s why most people entering the field earn a CNC machinist certification to train them for the role. CNC machinists need a variety of skills to do the job well. This includes:

  • Technical skills to operate the CNC machines. Most of these machines are pre-programmed, but the CNC machinist will need to understand the settings and know how to troubleshoot any problems that arise.
  • Analytical problem-solving skills are a requirement for the CNC machinist. You’ll need to be able to analyze the data at hand and make some snap judgments that extrapolate this information to support your decision-making.
  • We can’t stress enough how important troubleshooting is in the CNC machinist job description.

For example, the CNC machine may create parts that don’t meet the order specifications and you’re responsible or figuring out what went wrong. Or, the machine could stop working—what should you do? A smart, analytical, methodical approach is perfect for the CNC machinist to get to the bottom of whatever the problem might be. Even minor mistakes can cause a setback that creates the wrong part specifications or manufacturing defects.

  • This is also a physical job. You’ll need some physicality in the role, which involves some standing and walking. You may also work in higher temperatures or factor conditions which could be potentially taxing.

There are three key characteristics of the CNC machinist job description that set these skilled workers apart from most of the other workers in a manufacturing environment. These skills are programming, blueprint reading, and mathematic skills.

Programming

There are CNC programmers and CNC machinists, but no matter your role, you will have a hand in programming parameters for a part into these cool machines. CNC machines are programmed in several different ways depending on the type of machine you’re using. You will pick up the operation you want the machine to perform and program it along with the schematic you’re working from into the CNC machine. Essentially, you are programming several numeric blocks into the computerized brain of the CNC machine.

Blueprint Reading

The parts order you’re working from will come with a blueprint diagram of what you want cut, i.e., the shape and size of the piece(s) you’re manufacturing. While many of these orders will come in a CAD or CAM diagram, you’ll still need to know how to read a blueprint. One toolmaker says, “Physical blueprints are still a key part of modern machining.” The good news is blueprints come with a key or legend at the bottom of the page.

Mathematic Skills

If you didn’t pay attention in trigonometry class in high school (if you took it at all), you’ll learn a lot of it when you pursue your CNC machinist certification. Trigonometry is all about shapes, particularly triangles. You’ll use basic math, as well, so brush up on your fractions and decimals to prepare for this role.

Advancement Opportunities for CNC Machinists

As your career advances and your skills improve, you will have advancement opportunities that could include moving up the ladder as a CNC programmer. You could also evolve into a tool and die maker or a mold maker. Or, you could move up the chain to become a supervisor of a group of CNC machinists.

Most entry-level CNC machinists start out on simple stamper machines. Over time, their troubleshooting skills evolve as they take on more complex and sophisticated machines. Finally, they will have the opportunity to take on supervisory or more skilled jobs with corresponding bumps in pay. If you’re going into the field of CNC machining, opportunity awaits.

Find a CNC Machinist Job in Virginia with CTR Today

There are plenty of CNC machinist jobs in Virginia. Some require traditional CNC machinist certification, but employers will often take equivalent experience. Industrial staffing agencies like CTR Group can help you find the right opportunity that fits your salary expectations and other job requirements. We specialize in offering our candidates specialized industrial recruiters who understand the work environment you’ll step into.

CTR Group is one of the best industrial temp agencies in Norfolk, VA. Talk with our industrial recruiters today about the top CNC machinist jobs in Virginia and get your career moving in the right direction.

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