CNC Programmer: Education and Career Requirements

Learn about a career as a computer numerically controlled (CNC) programmer. Research the job duties and education requirements to make an informed decision about starting a career in CNC programming.

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There are several training and educational options for aspiring computer numerical control (CNC) programmers, ranging from certificate and degree programs to hands-on apprenticeships and practical on-the-job training. Professionals in this field can also earn voluntary professional certifications in order to demonstrate their skills and improve their job prospects in the field.

Essential Information

CNC programmers use their expertise to cut and shape parts for cars and machines. They can train through apprenticeships, vocational programs or on the job in this rapidly-growing field.

Required education High school diploma, may need a background in computer science
Projected job growth* (2014-2024) 19% (computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic)
Median Annual Salary* (2015) $48,990 (computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic)

Source *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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CNC Programmer Educational Requirements

Entry-level CNC programmers are sometimes able to acquire the necessary skills through a few weeks of on-the-job training, but setup programmers and operators generally need a number of years of formal training and experience. Technical and community colleges offer a variety of training programs and courses that prepare one for this career. Some options include a CNC Programmer Certificate, CNC Operator Certificate and Associate of Applied Science in Machine Tool Technology. These programs may include courses in drafting, machine math, CNC mill programming, lathe programming, computer-aided machining (CAM) and blueprint interpretation.

Prospective CNC programmers may also gain hands-on experience through apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships allow CNC programmers to develop practical experience in blueprint reading, shop practices, CAD software, hand-tapping, dowel fitting and other aspects of the trade. While not required, CNC programs could also consider earning optional industry certification, which can demonstrate competence and professionalism to potential employers. The National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) currently has multiple credentials for CNC programmers, including one in CNC Milling: Programming Setup & Operations and one in CNC Turning: Programming Setup & Operations. Graduates of formal training programs must pass written and practical tests to receive NIMS credentials.

Career Information

CNC programmers, also known as process tool and numerical control programmers, use precision CNC machines to cut and shape machine, automobile and aviation parts. Programmers study 3-dimensional computer-aided design (CAD) outlines to figure out the most efficient steps to make a part. They then input an instructional program into their machines to set guidelines for movement, cutting and shaping. CNC programmers should be capable of closely following safety measures, including wearing safety gear such as earplugs and goggles, because machine tools, lubricants and coolants can be hazardous. Programmers typically work 40 hours a week, including some weekends and evenings, in addition to lifting relatively heavy items and staying on their feet for the majority of the workday

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the demand for CNC programmers is expected to be strong from 2014-2024. CNC programmers who work with plastic and metal are predicted to see a 19% increase in employment opportunities during that time frame. The BLS also reported that these workers earned a median annual salary of $48,990 in May 2015.

CNC programmers can gain necessary experience through on-the-job-training, a training program or an apprenticeship program. They can also gain industry certification in a number of specialized areas through the NIMS. Jobs are projected to grow at a faster than average rate in this field through 2024.

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