Becoming a Machinist: Job Description & Salary Information

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A machinist's median hourly wage is $19.00, but is it worth the lengthy training requirements? Read real job duties and see the truth about career prospects to decide if becoming a machinist is right for you.
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A Machinist Career: Pros and Cons

Machinists work at production facilities that produce metal parts for products people use every day, like cars, computers and microwaves. Find out the pros and cons of a career as a machinist to decide if it's right for you.

Pros of a Machinist Career
Excellent job prospects (the demand for skilled machinists outweighs the number of applicants)*
Demand for machinists continues to survive advancements in automated technology*
Opportunity to specialize in production or maintenance machining*
No college degree required (training is earned in apprenticeships)*

Cons of a Machinist Career
Apprenticeships are long and may be difficult to get into*
Requires long hours, including evenings and weekends*
Hazards involved with working around manufacturing machinery*
Requires knowledge of highly specialized technology (CAD/CAM software, CNC machine tools, etc.)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Information

Job Description

A machinist uses specialized tools, such as lathes, grinders and milling machines, to produce metal parts for more complex products. You might, for example, make steel screws used to hold together industrial machines. The machining process involves several steps. You'll begin by reviewing blueprints and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) drafts to determine the part's specifications and dimensions. Next, you'll cut the material according to the specifications. Machinists often use computer numeric controlled (CNC) machines to cut these pieces. After the piece is made, you may smooth out the rough edges caused by cutting and test the parts for defects.

While you might serve as a general machinist, you could also specialize in an aspect of the manufacturing process. Some of these workers are production machinists, who cut large amounts of precise, individual parts. Alternatively, you could be a maintenance machinist, which involves restoring or replacing old parts to bring machinery back to working order.

As a machinist, you'll typically work on the floor of a factory or machine shop. Since this job involves working around loud and potentially hazardous machine tools, you'll have to follow strict safety measures, like wearing safety glasses and earplugs. You can generally expect to work long hours, including overtime, evenings and weekends.

Salary Information and Job Outlook

The U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notes that there were about 393,000 machinists working in the nation in 2014 (www.bls.gov). Many of these individuals earned between about $12 and $29 per hour, which translates to approximately $25,000-61,000 annually. Most machinists worked for machine shops, turned-product makers and screw, nut and bolt manufacturers, earning an average salary of more than $39,000. The highest-paid machinists worked in the natural gas distribution industry, earning more than $78,000 on average per year.

Jobs for machinists were expected to grow at an average rate of nine percent from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. While technological advancements that increase automation have decreased the need for machinists, these professionals will still continue to be needed to monitor, repair and upgrade machinery. Despite average job growth, you can still expect excellent job prospects if you have sufficient training, since the number of open positions exceeds the number of qualified machinists.

Training Requirements

Many machinists train for this career after high school by completing apprenticeship training, which is often available through national organizations, manufacturers and unions. As a machinist apprentice, you can expect to complete 4-5 years of on-the-job training and in-class instruction, which may be held at a 2-year college. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) also offers an apprenticeship program that focuses on assessing your mastery of skills learned on the job rather than setting firm timeframes for completion of courses and tasks.

Some regional organizations have their own apprenticeship programs. For example, the South Florida Manufacturers Association offers an 8,000-hour apprenticeship that combines classroom and online instruction with testing. You must be 18 or older and have a high school diploma to be eligible for this apprenticeship program.

What Do Employers Look For?

A machinist must have the ability to stand for long hours and occasionally lift heavy loads, so good physical condition is a requirement. An eye for detail and the ability to make precise measurements is also important. Employers often look for machinists who have experience with the type of machinery and software used in their specific manufacturing processes. Review the following job posting, which were available in March 2012, for an idea of what employers will expect of you:

  • In Florida, a microwave component manufacturer seeks a machinist with a minimum of five years of experience to set up, program and run CNC milling machines.
  • A Chicago packaging machinery company seeks a machinist with at least two years of experience to work the night shift. This individual must be familiar with a variety of programs, including ProTrac, EasyTrac and G Code.
  • A Texas compressor products company seeks a manual machinist with 2-5 years of repair experience and experience with manual machines, including mills and lathes. This individual should have an understanding of valve parts and brackets and the ability to re-machine parts if necessary.
  • An Oregon manufacturer of forestry, garden and construction equipment seeks a machinist who has completed an apprenticeship, including at least 30 hours of machine technology instruction. The candidate needs at least three years of experience with jig bore and OD/ID grind as well as five years of experience with jig grind and surface grind.

How to Stand Out

Obtaining certification can make you a more attractive candidate to potential employers and increase your job opportunities, according to the BLS. Certification is available through a variety of organizations, state boards and training institutions. The NIMS offers 52 different credentials at different levels for individuals in the machining industry, which you can earn by passing performance tests and theory exams. You could earn, for instance, obtain certification in screw machining, machine maintenance or stamping.

Alternative Careers

Welder

If you want a more hands-on career in metal manufacturing, consider becoming a welder. Welders use hand-held tools to apply heat to metal pieces in order to fuse them and form metal products according to specifications. You generally need to complete a formal training program, though some employers might hire you with only a high school diploma and provide you with training on the job. The BLS reports that welders earned nearly the same as machinists at between about $12 and $27 per hour as of 2011. The BLS also reports an expected job growth of 15% from 2010-2020, which is nearly twice that of machinists.

Machine Setter

Perhaps you want to work with machinery but don't want to go through the extensive training. If so, you may want to pursue a career in machine setting. In this profession, you'll prepare machines before production runs and ensure that they're operating properly. Machine setters often train on the job through informal apprenticeships, a much shorter training process than for machinists; however, keep in mind that jobs were expected to grow at a slower-than-average rate of six percent from 2010-2020, according to the BLS, and salary can vary greatly by the type of product with which you work.

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