Becoming a CNC Machine Operator: Salary Info & Job Description

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A CNC machine operator's mean annual salary is near $50,000. Is it worth the education and training requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about career prospects to find out if becoming a CNC machine operator is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a CNC Machine Operator Career

Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machine operators tend CNC machines and monitor them to make sure they run through a specific cycle set by the machinist. Consider the following pros and cons to determine if a career as a CNC machine operator is the right career for you.

Pros of Being a CNC Machine Operator
Certificate programs or on-the-job training sufficient for entry-level positions*
Faster than average employment growth (expected 28% job growth between 2012 and 2022)*
Higher than average wage potential (mean wage of $50,000 as of May 2014)*
Machine operators advance to setup, machinery maintenance or supervisory positions*
Advancement possible with additional work experience and professional certifications*

Cons of Being a CNC Machine Operator
Possible exposure to hazards*
Position may require wearing masks to avoid dangerous fumes or dust*
Work requires standing for long periods*
May be required to work evenings or weekends*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

CNC machine operators fall in the category of computer-controlled machine tool operators, who can work with both metal and plastic. As such, these workers set up and monitor the machines as they mold or cast parts. The CNC machinists usually program CNC machines, after which time the CNC machine operators monitor the CNC machine, using their knowledge of precision measurement, blueprint reading and basic machining. The operators lift the materials or parts into the machine, either by hand or with cranes and hoists. They listen for unusual sounds or other indications of malfunction. When the machine runs through its cycle, the operator removes the parts and measures them with precision instruments to ensure they meet the blueprint's specifications. CNC machine operators can tend various types of machines, including computer-controlled machines; CNC machines; rolling machines; punching, cutting and press machines; drilling machines; and lathes.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of computer-controlled machine tool operators using metal and plastic could grow to 28% between 2012 and 2022. However, factors such as advances in technology, foreign competition and a change in factory processes could affect growth. Another factor affecting employment growth is the addition of computer-controlled machines and robots, which allow the machines to run automatically once they're programmed by the machinist or programmer. As of May 2014, CNC machine operators earned an average salary of nearly $50,000, stated the BLS. Factors such as location, industry and worker experience can affect salaries.

What Are the Requirements?

Becoming a CNC machine operator might not require much more than on-the-job training, although most employers prefer their employees have a high school diploma. Some choose to complete courses or short training programs. A candidate pursuing this career can benefit from taking math, shop, blueprint reading and computer-aided design (CAD) courses. Although some CNC machine operators are trained for only a couple of months, others may require training for up to a year to be skillful in all aspects of the job. The training required might also vary according to the complexity of the job. Formal training programs offer classroom studies, lab practical training and internships with local industries. Courses can include CNC programming, industrial blueprint reading, machine procedures, geometric dimensioning and tolerancing, tool making and machine tool operation. Some employers provide training on the job or might pay their employees to take courses.

What Employers Are Looking for

To work as a CNC machine operator, you need to have skill working with both computers and mechanical equipment. Because you often work long and irregular hours as well as lift heavy equipment, you'll also need physical stamina and strength.

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers often vary in what they're looking for in CNC machine operators, depending on the industry, though most prefer candidates to have a certain amount of work experience. Although this is not a complete picture of what the job market looks like for these workers, here are a couple job postings from April 2012 to give you a look at what real employers might expect.

  • An Ohio automotive firm is looking for a qualified CNC machine operator to join their team. Applicants must have at least two years experience in machine operation and must be able to work in various departments as needed. Candidates will load and operate machines, inspect parts and perform assembly work. Candidates must also be familiar with using gauges and the operation of CNC lathes or Mazak lathe machines. This is a full-time position with a starting wage of at least $10 per hour.
  • A manufacturing engineering company in Illinois is looking for a qualified CNC machine operator. Applicants should have at least one year of experience operating various machines, such as Brake Press, CNC, Turret Press or Punch Press, and the ability to pass machine operator measurement test and industrial skills test. Applicants must submit to a drug screening and criminal background check. In addition to operating machines, candidates must be knowledgeable of how to use calipers, gauges and how to read blueprints. Must also be able to work overtime and lift at last 50 pounds.
  • A qualified CNC machine operator is needed to work in a California manufacturing company. Applicants must have at least two years recent experience in machine operation, particularly CNC mills or lathes. Additionally, they must understand G-codes and proper use of calipers and micrometers. Knowledge of how to set up a CNC machine is a plus. Applicants should also be self-motivated with CNC operation experience and good communication skills. Pay is determined by experience.

How to Make Your Skills Stand Out

Obtaining training and work experience are important steps towards finding employment. However, to be competitive in the job market, you'll want to take other steps that make you stand out. Making your skills stand out can be the difference between having a job and a career.

Get Certified

Although certification is not usually a requirement, it can demonstrate your knowledge and proficiency in your field. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) offers several certifications for machine operators. Their various learning modules are based on skill level and competency. The NIMS currently offers 52 credentials for metalworkers. Some examples of credentials offered are Machining Level I, II and III, Stamping, Diemaking, Machine Maintenance and Press Brake, among others. To obtain certification, eligible applicants must pass examinations.

Develop Related Skills

CNC machine operators are usually initially trained on one machine or in one area. By obtaining expertise and gaining work experience in one area, you can become trained in other areas, thus enhancing your job potential. Employers tend to look favorably on employees who are cross-trained in various areas. Developing good analytical, problem-solving and communication skills can also improve your chances for advancement or promotions.

Alternative Career Paths

You might find that, although you are interested in CNC machine operator work, it doesn't offer the job growth or wages you'd hoped it would bring. If this is the case, there are other career paths you may wish to consider. Here a few alternative career paths worth considering.

Industrial Machinery Mechanic and Maintenance Worker

Some CNC machine operators find that they're performing maintenance work on the machines but receiving operator's pay. If this is the case, and you enjoy doing repairs, you may want to consider a career as an industrial machinery mechanic and maintenance worker. According to the BLS, these workers were predicted to see an employment growth of 19% between 2010 and 2020. As of May 2011, industrial machinery mechanics earned a mean average salary of around $48,000 and machinery maintenance workers earned around $41,000. Machinery maintenance workers are usually required to have high school diplomas and receive on-the-job training. To become an industrial machinery mechanic requires completion of formal training, usually a 1-year program. Some schools also offer associate's degree programs in industrial maintenance.

Electro-mechanical Technician

You might find an electro-mechanical technician career a challenging and interesting alternative to CNC machine operator. As an electro-mechanical technician, you'll combine your knowledge of electrical and electronic circuits with your knowledge of mechanical technology to install, service and troubleshoot electronic and computer-controlled systems in a variety of industries. You'll also assist engineers with their work. Although the BLS reported that these workers would only see a 1% growth between 2010 and 2020, it did report their median annual earnings at almost $53,000 in May 2011. To be an electro-mechanical technician, you must complete an associate's degree program. If you find you enjoy this career, you'll have the groundwork set to advance your education and earn a bachelor's degree in engineering and become an engineer.

Computer Programmer

While a career as a computer programmer may seem a drastic change from CNC machine operator (factory work to office work), it may be an option worth considering if you enjoy and have a knack for the programming involved in CNC machines. As a computer programmer, you'll be able to write codes and programs to make computer systems do what you 'ask of them'. Computer programmers usually have bachelor's degrees, but some employers hire individuals who complete associate's degree programs, which typically take two years to complete. According to the BLS, computer programmers earned a mean wage of around $76,000 as of May 2011. The BLS also predicted these workers would experience a 12% employment growth between 2010 and 2020.

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