Computer Control Technician Careers: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a computer control technician career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a computer control technician is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Computer Control Technician Career

Computer control technicians work with computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines. In this field, you may work as a CNC technician, operator, or programmer, in areas including parts production, machining, and tool and die making. The following pros and cons should be considered before deciding on this career path.

Pros of a Computer Control Technician Career
Few education requirements (on-the-job training or some college)*
Excellent job prospects for programmers and operators*
Union benefits*
Broad variety of job options*

Cons of a Computer Control Technician Career
Machining hazards*
Noise (earplugs are necessary)*
Overtime (evening and weekend work is common)*
Shift work*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Info

Job Duties and Descriptions

Computer control technicians operate CNC machines which include lathes, milling machines, multi-axis spindles, laser cutting machines, wire electrical discharge machines, and similar equipment. These machines are used to produce parts that need to be milled to precise standards and are used by manufacturing machines and companies.

Computer control technicians often start as CNC apprentices and then move into operating positions, supervising several working machines at once. With more training and further experience, technicians may move up to become CNC setup operators or programmers. Setup operators get machines ready at the beginning of a job by downloading the program, installing the correct cutting tools in their holders, positioning the material which will be carved into the finished part and performing the test run.

CNC programmers study 3-dimensional drawings or blueprints of the desired part and create a plan for the machine to create it. Once the process is planned, each detailed step must be programmed for computer-automated manufacturing (CAM).

Salary Information and Job Prospects

CNC technicians fall into a couple of job categories, and they're paid accordingly. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), operators of metal lathe and turning machine tools earned median salaries of $36,260 annually as of May 2014, machinists earned $39,980, and tool and die makers earned $48,890. CNC machine programmers and CNC operators earned $47,500 and $36,440 respectively, according to 2014 BLS figures.

The BLS projected rapid job growth for both CNC programmers (19%) and operators (17%), and above-average growth for machinists (10%), but forecast steep declines for both tool and die makers (-13%) and lathe and turning machine operators (-20%).

Skills and Training Requirements

Basic Skills

CNC technicians and programmers generally have high school diplomas with a solid grounding in math and computer coursework. To do this kind of work, you'll need to be mechanically inclined and have the ability to read and understand highly technical blueprints. You'll also need to pay careful attention to detail and work with precision, because the workpiece specifications are often measured to tiny fractions of an inch, and mistakes can be serious and expensive.

Education and Training

Certificate, diploma, and associate's degree programs for training in CNC skills are available through vocational schools and community colleges. Coursework for these programs generally includes basic machining, mathematics, CNC machining programming, CNC operation and blueprint reading.

Development of machining skills is widely recognized as a multi-year process. High school students planning to enter this field should take math courses, such as trigonometry and CAD/CAM classes, and seek internships or work/study programs while in high school if possible. There are a variety of apprenticeship programs offered through federal, state, and private programs and employers, which would allow you train while working. Your employer may offer to train you using coursework from a local community college, or they may provide on-the-job training and mentorship.

What Employers Are Looking For

A sampling of job postings shows employers seeking candidates with high school diplomas or GEDs, a couple of years of experience and the ability to work flexible schedules. Mechanical aptitude and problem solving skills were also mentioned. Below are some of the profiles that real employers looked for during April 2012:

  • A Wisconsin employment agency advertised for CNC programmers and operators to work for a manufacturing client. The operator positions involved ensuring conformance of pieces to specifications, adjusting machine feeds and speeds, and changing tooling and workpiece placements to meet machining sequences. Programmer positions involved revising programs to eliminate errors, determining machine cutting paths, conducting trial runs, and writing and/or modifying programs.
  • A Texas manufacturer posted an opening for a CNC programmer with at least two years' experience programming CNC machines and programming the machining of metal and composite materials. A college degree was not required. Mastercam software experience was a plus.
  • A Washington state manufacturer sought a swing-shift position for a machinist to operate a CNC Swiss Screw machine. Job duties included set up, operation, programming, and editing of the screw machine and an automatic lathe machine. The ability to work well in a team environment along with excellent communication, problem solving skills, and mechanical aptitudes were requested.
  • An Arizona company looked for a CNC Lathe Operator for project work on their third shift. The job involved operating and adjusting machines to produce component parts. Performing machining functions such as drilling, boring, and threading, as well as inspecting finished work were also involved. High school diploma or GED, good communication skills, and 3-5 years of work experience were required.

How to Make Your Skills Stand Out

While getting a job in this field doesn't typically require a college degree, completing an educational program might serve to demonstrate both the skills you've learned and your interest in improving your knowledge in this field. Taking continuing education courses in order to either learn about, or keep current with, changes in the field might also be helpful in gaining or keeping a job.

Apprenticeships are available through programs organized by the Department of Labor, professional associations, and private employers. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills, Inc. (NIMS) produces credentialing assessments and standards for workers in the metalworking industries. Completing an apprenticeship and earning the journey-level credential is recognized as a standard of competency by employers.

According to the BLS, roughly 20%-25% of machinists belong to unions, which may be helpful in networking and finding a job.

Alternative Career Paths

Computer Programmer

If you would like to work in machine programming rather than operation, you might look into becoming a computer programmer. Earning an undergraduate degree in programming might give you broader job flexibility, higher pay, and a more regular schedule if you want to work in manufacturing. The BLS reported that computer programmers earned median salaries of $73,000 in 2011. Job opportunities for programmers were expected to grow by 12% through 2020.

Industrial Machinery Mechanic

You might want to consider being a machinery mechanic if you would prefer to work maintaining and repairing machines, rather than using them. This type of work typically requires a year of training in electronics, hydraulics, and computer programming. The field is expected to grow by 19% through 2020, and machinery mechanics earned median salaries of $46,000 as of 2011.

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