Becoming a CNC Operator: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of a CNC operator career? Get the truth about job duties, salary information and career outlook to decide if a career in this field is right for you.
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The Pros and Cons of a CNC Operator Career

Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine operators control equipment that cuts, shapes and forms plastic and/or metal materials. To learn a bit more about the pros and cons of a career as a CNC operator, just keep reading.

Pros of a CNC Operator Career
Good salary compared to required education ($38,830 average salary; high school diploma required)*
Fair amount of independence and autonomy**
Flexibility in job location*
Generally good job security**

Cons of a CNC Operator Career
Declining job growth (-six percent from 2012-2022)*
Working conditions can be hazardous*
Overtime, weekend and evening hours fairly common*
Can be physically demanding*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O Net Online

Essential Career Information

Job Duties

CNC operators typically run machines, adjusting their controls as necessary. They might make trial cuts to ensure that machinery is working properly and that materials are being produced according to specifications. Some newer production techniques may require CNC operators to rotate between different types of machines and use a wider range of skills.

Your work as a CNC operator may also require you to keep track of production numbers in a computer database. Overtime hours are common for many CNC operators, since manufacturers often run machinery during evenings and weekends.

Salary Information and Career Outlook

As of May 2014, the BLS reported an average annual salary of $38,830 for miller and planing machine operators and tenders, metal and plastic. Technological advancements and foreign competition may have a significant impact on employment of CNC operators in the coming years. The BLS projected employment growth of minus six percent for metal and plastic machine workers from 2012-2022. Job prospects should be best for workers with thorough knowledge of materials and extensive experience with different types of machines.

Requirements

For most CNC operator positions, a high school diploma is adequate educational training. In general, a strong background in mathematics and experience working with computers are important assets for potential CNC operators. The majority of hands-on training for most machine workers comes through job experience. Depending on the sophistication of the machines being used, the on-the-job training you receive as a CNC operator could be of varying length and intensity.

While modern technology has simplified some of the activities for machine workers, good mechanical skills are still very important in your career as a CNC operator. You'll need to have at least a basic understanding of how machines and all of their parts work in order to spot inconsistencies and potential problems. Physical strength and stamina are also important for guiding and loading heavy machine parts and standing for long periods of time.

What Are Employers Looking For?

If you have a mechanical background and some experience working in materials production, you might be able to find work in a wide range of CNC machine applications. A few job listings from November 2012 might give you an idea of the job market for machine workers.

  • An aerospace company in Connecticut looked for a 6-month contract position. This job involved setting up and operating machines to make precision products and required at least two years of experience.
  • A manufacturing company in Rhode Island sought a CNC operator to work a full-time third shift position. Operating equipment, maintaining safety standards, keeping records and maintaining machinery and supplies were all requirements of the position. Two years of experience were required.
  • A Houston-based manufacturing company looked for CNC operators with one year of experience to fill day and night positions. The job involved using CNC lathes and mills.

Standing Out in the Field

Because the manufacturing world advances alongside computer developments, knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) systems can help you stand out in a competitive job market. Becoming proficient in machinery setup or maintenance might also lead to improved opportunities.

Certification is generally not required for CNC operators, but gaining credentials in a particular area of machining work can be helpful in enhancing your qualifications. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) offers 52 skills certifications that can verify your competence in a wide range of areas. The NIMS has also established skills standards in 24 areas to prove your capabilities to potential employers.

Alternate Career Options

If the setup and maintenance aspects of working as a CNC operator seem particularly appealing to you, but you're looking for a job field with greater prospects, a career as an industrial machinery mechanic might be a good option. Industrial machinery mechanics repair or replace broken or malfunctioning components of manufacturing equipment. You'll need a high school diploma along with some formal technical training to become an industrial machinery mechanic, and the BLS projected average job growth for related positions from 2010-2020. As of May 2011, the BLS reported an average annual salary of about $48,000.

Working as a millwright might also be a good option if you enjoy maintaining complex machinery and are looking for a job with a higher average salary. Millwrights install machinery and equipment, replace defective parts, adjust moving parts and disassemble machinery to clear space for new equipment. You'll need some significant training to become a millwright, and you might learn the trade through an associate's degree program in industrial maintenance or by serving an apprenticeship of 3-4 years. While the BLS projected a slight decline in employment of millwrights from 2010-2020, job prospects should be stronger for highly-qualified individuals. The BLS reported an average annual salary of about $50,500 for millwrights in May 2011.

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