Operating CNC machinery takes a variety of skills, many of which can be obtained through certificate and associate's degree programs. On-the-job training and internships also help the aspiring CNC operator to get familiar with their workplace equipment.
Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinery is used by CNC operators to cut and shape metal and plastic for various types of manufacturing. CNC operators must have mechanical skills and be able to read blueprints. Increasingly, many employers also require CNC operators to have basic computer programming skills and experience with computer-aided design and manufacturing programs. Licensing is typically not required, although many candidates are either trained on the job through apprenticeships or receive post-secondary certificates in manufacturing technology. A high school diploma is typically required. If you are the type of person that enjoys working with your hands in a challenging, fast-paced environment, then this career might be for you.
|Recommended Education||Postsecondary certificates and associate's degrees are the most common required credentials|
|Other Requirements||Mechanical aptitude, ability to read blue prints and drawings|
|Projected Job Growth (2014-2024)||-13% (for metal and plastic machine workers)*|
|Median Salary (2016)||$35,384**|
Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics', ** Payscale.com '
Education Requirements to be a CNC Operator
Many CNC operators are trained on the job and in apprenticeships; however, some complete associate degree programs in manufacturing technology offered through community colleges and technical schools. Certificate programs are also offered through vocational schools, community colleges and commercial trade schools.
CNC operators often advance to the position of CNC programmer or CNC setup operator; these positions may require the completion of additional educational requirements, including advanced coursework in computer programming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employers in the aerospace and shipbuilding industries sometimes require CNC operators to have a bachelor's degree in engineering (www.bls.gov).
Certificate and degree programs include coursework in basic math, CNC machine operation and setup, blueprint reading and CNC tooling. In many programs, students also take courses in computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and learn basic programming skills for various CNC lathe and laser operations and milling applications.
CNC operator apprenticeships offer classroom and hands-on training in the use of machine tools, as well as the manual operation of CNC machines. Apprentices also take classes in CNC programming, math, physics and CAD/CAM. Apprenticeships are often offered through state tooling and machining apprenticeship associations. A CNC operator apprenticeship program can take four years to complete, during which the apprentice is a full-time employee of the sponsoring employer.
The BLS reported that there were 157,800 CNC operators employed in 2008. CNC operators monitor equipment used to shape and cut materials used to manufacture everything from cars to televisions. After the CNC machinery has been numerically programmed with design specifications, CNC operators ensure that the equipment runs properly, detecting problems such as vibration and overheating.
They may specialize in a particular type of task, such as CNC lathe or laser operation, or CNC milling. Traditionally, only advanced CNC operators, known as CNC programmers and CNC setup operators, would program, set up and start machines; however, basic programming is increasingly being performed by CNC operators.
CNC operators must have excellent mechanical aptitude and experience with equipment, such as precision grinders, machine tools, lathes and lasers, used for cutting, grinding and milling. In addition to having strong troubleshooting and problem-solving skills, they must have good analytical skills and be able to read blueprints and mechanical drawings.
Salary Information and Career Forecast
As of January 2016, Payscale.com reports an annual median salary of $35,384 for CNC operators. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the computer-controlled machine tool operators who work in motor vehicle manufacturing made the highest average salary with $48,990.
The BLS predicted job growth of negative 13 percent for metal and plastic machine workers during the 2014-2024 period, fueled by continued advancement in technology and foreign competition. CNC operators with programming skills and experience working with a variety of CNC machines may have an edge in a competitive job market (www.bls.gov).
CNC operators are trained on CNC machine operations, blueprints, and CNC tooling, often through associate's degree or certificate programs. More advanced operators may look for more training in computer programming and in specialized CNC machines, such as lasers and CNC milling. Having a strong aptitude for troubleshooting, problem-solving and analysis is a necessary trait for CNC operators.