Be a CNC Machine Operator: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a CNC machine operator. Research the education requirements, training, certification information, and experience you will need to start a career as a CNC machinist. View article »

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  • 0:00 Become a CNC Machine Operator
  • 0:59 Career Requirements
  • 2:13 Step 1: Earn a High…
  • 2:33 Step 2: Get a…
  • 3:45 Step 3: Get Certified

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Video Transcript

Become a CNC Machine Operator

CNC machine operators set up and work with computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines, a type of equipment that is usually found in the metalworking industry. Their jobs often involve repetitive tasks and the monitoring of multiple machines. Typical job duties include loading materials into the machine, setting the machine tools according to the specific job order, and monitoring machine operation during use.

Following job completion, CNC machine operators are also responsible for machine cleaning and preparation for the next job. They may also be required to fill out job-tracking paperwork and monitor supplies in efforts to improve or maintain efficiency. Working with these types of machines can be hazardous, and operators must follow all safety regulations to prevent injury. In addition, workers often stand for long periods of time and lift heavy loads.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Some college or trade school attendance
Degree Fields Machine technology, CNC machine operations
Certification Voluntary credentials available through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) and the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International
Experience 1+ year of machine operations experience
Key Skills Mechanical ability; physical strength and stamina; ability to stand continually during shift; bend, twist, and lift up to 75 lbs regularly; familiarity with CNC programming software; ability to read blueprints and operate tools like calipers, micrometers, mills, and lathes
Salary $37,030 (2015 median for computer-controlled machine tool operators)

Sources: Online job postings in December 2012, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

The website for the Bureau of Labor Statistics also states that machine operators who've completed a high school education are usually preferred by employers. High school courses in math, shop, and computer programming might be especially helpful to individuals looking to enter this career field or those pursuing formal training in college.

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Step 2: Get a Certificate or Degree

Community colleges and vocational schools offer many certificate and associate's degree programs that teach the skills directly applicable to CNC machine operator work. CNC machinist or operator certificate programs may only take a few weeks or months to complete and teach necessary skills, such as blueprint reading, measurement, and inspection. Associate's degree programs in tool technology or CNC machine operations are also available. Associate's degree programs generally last for two academic years and require the completion of general education courses in addition to industry-specific classes. These industry-specific classes may include machine shop practices, production machining techniques, measurements and calculations, and computer-aided manufacturing.

Success Tip:

While working on a certificate or degree, it may be a good idea to gain hands-on experience. In addition to formal education, employers seek CNC machine operators with experience in the field. Such hands-on experience may be gained through the lab courses offered as part of certificate or associate's degree programs. Alternatively, apprenticeship programs may be available with certain employers or in conjunction with a school program.

Step 3: Get Certified

Workers seeking to solidify their skill set may want to consider getting certification. Many schools and organizations offer certification for the industry. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills, Inc. (NIMS) offers certifications such as the NIMS Certified CNC Setup Programmer with multiple levels of credentialing in milling and turning that measure core competencies throughout a journeyworker and apprenticeship program. The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International offers the Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO) certification and the Roll Form Operator Skilled Trade certification program, both of which require work experience and specific coursework to qualify to sit for the exams. These types of specializations along with experience may make a machine operator more valuable in the eyes of an employer.

So when considering a career as a CNC machine operator, remember that employers will likely be looking for a skilled worker with some experience, completion of a degree or certificate program in a field related to CNC machine operations, and the ability to attain additional certifications. These workers need mechanical and technical skills in order to successfully and efficiently run and monitor CNC machines in a manufacturing facility.

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