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What does a CNC Machinist do?

By D. Jeffress
Updated: Mar 02, 2024

Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines are employed in most modern-day machinist shops and mass production facilities to increase accuracy and efficiency when forming metal parts. A CNC machinist is specially trained to program, operate, and maintain such equipment. He or she uses expert knowledge to set up machines that are capable of cutting, bending, forming, and polishing raw metal into finished parts and tools.

Modern technological advances in the design and implementation of CNC machines has changed the nature of a machinist's job. Where a professional used to cut and mold metal parts by hand, today's machinists can program and monitor the work of a fully automated machine. In some shops, a handful of skilled CNC machinists can perform the same amount of work as several dozen manual machinists. Professionals read and interpret blueprints, input data into a computer system, and inspect the accuracy of a machine's operation. Machinists are responsible for making careful adjustments and performing maintenance on delicate parts.

A CNC machinist is often involved with the design of new equipment, providing an expert perspective on the efficiency of new products. He or she might work with engineers and programmers to develop better machines, such as those that employ laser devices or water cutting tools. The CNC machinist uses his or her firsthand experience to inform designers and engineers about appropriate sizes and speeds for different kinds of equipment, and tests out prototypes to ensure their accuracy.

To become a CNC machinist, a person must usually have at least a high school diploma and experience working with machinery and computers. Some employers require new machinists to complete a training program at a trade school or community college, assume an apprenticeship at a shop, or both. Training programs, which may last from six months to two years, provide classroom and hands-on instruction to prospective machinists. Students learn about different CNC machinery and the latest technology, as well as safety procedures and workplace guidelines. Apprenticeships may take as long as four years to complete, and consist of paid on the job training under the supervision of experienced CNC machinists.

In the United States, a new CNC machinist may choose to become certified by taking a written exam administered by the National Institute of Metalworking Skills. Most other industrialized countries have similar nationally recognized organizations which accredit skilled CNC machinists. Becoming certified is not usually a requirement for employment, though gaining certification can improve a machinist's credentials and open up more job opportunities.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon340064 — On Jun 29, 2013

The field is dying; just check out the online job sites.

By anon317934 — On Feb 04, 2013

@rallenwriter: Well, answers are more complex than just a simple answer for each question. Most of these guys are just on the floor, running machines, working excessive hours demanded by employer(s), and never seeing any progress in their career.

In bigger centers or cities, you can expect around $25/hour, while in smaller centers the pay is $15-17/hour. Most of employers request from individual to know all three things (operate, setup, programming). You can have a decent pay rate if you do not intend, or hate, to attend college or university. Most of the time, people on the floor just operate and do setups on machines, and they understand programs but do not write or re-write one.

By anon282469 — On Jul 29, 2012

I want to get in this field after high school but it doesn't sound like you have a steady pay. How long will it take to make 100,000 a year? - joe

By anon277709 — On Jul 01, 2012

The CNC Machinist field is great. Yes, it takes a few years to become a machinist but it is worth the wait. I've been in it for 32 years and I've been out of work only a month total. Classes are good, but experience is better. Once you're in, time flies and I make good money: 55k to 65k a year.

By anon263632 — On Apr 25, 2012

I have been looking to start a career as a machinist. Is it stable or is it really going downhill?

By anon247716 — On Feb 14, 2012

As a former computer programmer, would any of that be of help to get in to CNC/CAD fields? I just need some input regarding that question. Thanks for the help. Great info here so far.

By anon241277 — On Jan 18, 2012

I call bullcrap when it comes to pursuing a degree - I have a Bachelors degree (Science) and a diploma (paramedic) and am not making any money with either because it is next to impossible to get a job in those fields. I have had more luck as a CNC machinist, and would recommend that path.

By anon227637 — On Nov 05, 2011

I was a CNC machinist for 12 years, before I left to pursue another career. I wouldn't advise a young person to pursue this field. I was one of the best and always had job offers, but the industry is going through some trying times. Most production jobs have been outsourced overseas, and the remaining prototype jobs are very difficult to make a profit on due to competition.

You need at least five years experience and stellar math and problem solving skills to be making any real money in this field, say $16-20/hour. If you put that amount of effort into a different career (degree), you could be making $60-80K a year vs. $35-40K. Also you won't need to be as concerned about job stability.

By anon130747 — On Nov 29, 2010

I’ve just finalized a two year contract in the UK, which paid a six figure sum, in pounds. Worth the training. --Barry T

By closerfan12 — On Jul 22, 2010

There is actually a lot of demand recently for younger CNC machinists, since they can sometimes grasp the computer programs used on the job more quickly.

By Charlie89 — On Jul 22, 2010

@rallenwriter -- I had a buddy who worked as a CNC machinist for a long time, and he really liked it. I think it's the kind of job that you can really pursue as a career as long as you're willing to put in the apprenticeship hours and work your way up.

Although CNC machinists are pretty much always in demand, it can take a while to work your way up to earning the good money. The pay is usually decent, but on the lower side, at the beginning.

One of the good things about being a CNC machinist is that employers will in many chances pay for you to take training classes, which can really up your earnings.

By rallenwriter — On Jul 22, 2010

So has anyone out there ever been a CNC machinist? My brother is looking to get into the industry, and is trying to get as much information as he can about the job.

So if anybody out there has been or is a CNC machinist, what is it really like? Do you enjoy it? Is it worth pursuing as a career?

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