What is a machinist?
A machinist creates tools, parts, and other metal or plastic objects using precision cutting machines, such as milling and drilling machines, grinders, and lathes. They produce extremely accurate mechanical parts and components for a wide range of industries. The machines they use may be manually operated or computer controlled.
Machinists work in machine shops or manufacturing plants. Because the work they do is very exacting, they must have the skills and knowledge to operate the machinery and make precise measurements and cuts. Many learn on the job as apprentices or in trade schools.
A machinist might do any number of different operations, depending on the company they work for. Some work for companies that produce very basic or repetitive types of parts, so they do the same thing every day. Others produce custom parts and mechanical components and never do the same thing twice.
A typical day job for a machinist may begin with reviewing technical drawings to plan out the manufacturing process. They look at the requirements, decide what material is needed, and determine which cutting tools or machines they need to use. They look at how to produce the parts and how they will fit with other parts. They precisely calculate the measurements before making the first cut. They also might take the drawing back to the designer for clarification or to suggest changes or additions. Whether manually or by using computer-aided machines, they make very precise cuts using the right tool for each part. They check and double-check their work frequently to make sure the parts are cut to within the required limits. The cuts often have to be precise up to a thousandth of an inch or more. This is crucial because machinists typically make parts that will need to fit with other parts that they don’t make.
Machinists work with manual machines and computer numerical controlled (CNC) machines. CNC machines are much faster than manual ones and often are used to make very complicated parts. These professionals need to know how to set CNC machines up properly.
Qualifications and eligibility
A machinist needs to have a deep understanding of mechanics and metallic properties and must have an aptitude for mathematics and machining. They need to have a strong knowledge of the machine tools they work with. A good understanding of computer modeling and drafting software is beneficial. If they work with CNC machines (lathes, mills, etc.), they need to know how to program them.
Machinists need to understand different shapes, cutting angles, coatings, edge preparations, and substrates. They must be able to determine which tools they need to create the required features. Attention to detail is essential, as is the ability to read and interpret blueprints, schematics, and manuals. They must possess solid organizational skills and have the physical stamina and strength to lift heavy items.
To be eligible to become a machinist, you will need a high school diploma or a GED. Training is also essential. You can either learn on the job through an apprenticeship program or by attending a trade school or a community college. Some of the best programs include:
- Edgetech Academy: At this academy, you’ll learn everything you need to become a CNC machinist. You’ll read blueprints, sketches, and CAD. You’ll have hands-on learning opportunities as well.
- Universal Technical Institute: With classes starting every six weeks, this is the perfect option for people who are ready to begin their training. The entire program lasts about nine months, and there are even scholarship opportunities available.
- SAM Tech: This program requires you to pass an entrance math exam, as well as the Bennett Mechanical Comprehension Test. Then, you’ll take nine different courses all relating to becoming a CNC machinist.
- Fox Valley Technical College: If you are interested in becoming a machinist but also want to have other options in case you can’t find a job in that field, the manufacturing degree at Fox Valley is a great fit. Here, you’ll learn welding, metal machining, fabrication, industrial maintenance, manufacturing, and wood manufacturing.
- Lone Star College: This certificate is a nine-month program that leaves you a certificate as a Machinist I. They also offer a full program at three of their locations if you want more than just a certificate.
While not required, getting certified through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) can boost your career opportunities and give you an advantage over your competition.
Machinists work indoors, typically in a machine shop, tool room, manufacturing plant, or industrial facility. Some work in research facilities, on military bases, and aboard ships. They work in well-lit, well-ventilated places, around high-speed, potentially dangerous machinery, and must be alert at all times while on the shop floor.
They frequently work on assembly lines and may have to stand for long periods, often performing repetitive cuts. The environment is often very noisy. Machinists can be exposed to machine oil, metal filings, unpleasant odors, and other hazards. They generally wear protective gear, including safety glasses and earplugs, and follow all safety regulations to avoid injury. These professionals use their hands throughout the day, performing very precise work. They generally work closely with engineers, senior machinists, and administrative workers to receive instructions and feedback.
Typical work hours
Machinists usually work a 40-hour week. They may have to do shift work, which includes night and weekend shifts. Many have opportunities to work overtime.
Types of machinists
There are many different types of machinists. Some of the top specialties include:
Manual machinists set up and operate a variety of machine tools to produce precision parts and instruments.
CNC machinists program operating instructions for computer numerical controlled precision machinery such as presses, drills, and lathes.
Fitters study drawings, schematics, and blueprints to fit, assemble, and shape machinery parts. They can be general fitters, mechanical fitters, maintenance fitters, or fitters and turners.
Grinders use specific tools and equipment to smooth, polish, and finish products according to design specifications. They may perform the job by using manual grinding machinery or CNC mill equipment.
A mill machinist operates equipment such as milling machines, end mills, revolving lathe tools, and drill presses, to produce manufacturing parts out of metal, aluminum, steel, or plastic, often for the aerospace industry.
Mold makers create molds that are used to produce a wide variety of products. They may use many different types of material, including plastics, metals, ceramics, and wood.
Tool and Die Makers
Tool and die makers set up and operate a variety of CNC or mechanically-controlled machine tools to produce precision metal parts, instruments, and tools.
Nuclear machinists perform maintenance and repairs on the steam-powered propulsion plants aboard aircraft carriers and submarines.
Maintenance machinists fabricate, maintain, and repair metal components and equipment.
Automotive machinists work on all types of vehicles, where they build parts and components, including engine parts.
The earning potential for a machinist can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for machinists was $47,730 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,220, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $68,250.
- In May 2021, the top industries were:
- Transportation equipment manufacturing – $49,010
- Machinery manufacturing – $47,700
- Machine shops – $47,510
- Employment services – $30,500
- As of Aug 2022, the 5 cities with the highest annual pay are listed as:
- Atkinson, NE – $57,879
- Frankston, TX – $56,857
- Dimondale, MI – $53,137
- Manhattan, NY – $52,868
- Skyline-Ganipa, NM – $51,444
- The highest-paying machinist-related jobs are:
- Machining Manager – $84,318
- Engineering Machinist – $72,932
- Machine Programmer – $71,087
- Nuclear Machinist – $69,798
- Machinist Engineer – $66,842
- The 5 states reporting the highest annual salaries are:
- Tennessee – $47,293
- Massachusetts – $46,427
- Hawaii – $46,282
- Minnesota – $46,088
- Connecticut – $45,701
- The bottom 3 states are:
- Florida – $33,372
- North Carolina – $33,210
- Georgia – $31,115
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the overall employment of machinists and tool and die makers is projected to grow 7% from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations. An average of about 47,500 openings for these professionals are expected each year.
There are a variety of career paths available for a machinist. You can work on a military base anywhere in the world or operate and program CNC machines. Here are some of the careers paths you can take:
- Machine operator – generally an entry-level position, this job is a stepping stone to advancement as a machinist. You can also be a CNC machine operator.
- Set-up CNC machinist – set-up machinists need an understanding of how CNC machines work and how to set them up to specific design requirements.
- CNC programmer – programmers write the code that tells the CNC systems how to make the part you need. You need to be knowledgeable in programming, designing parts, and optimizing performance.
- Manager – with experience, dedication, and leadership qualities, you can advance to lead and manager positions where you train employees in the proper use of equipment, enforce safety regulations, assign work, and supervise employees’ work. Managers might also keep inventories and order parts and make sure repair records are kept up to date.
The following is a list of some common careers for machinists:
- Automotive machinists
- Aviation machinists
- Nuclear machinists
- CNC machinists
- Die makers
- Gear machinists
- Jig bore tool makers
- Maintenance machinists
- Manual lathe machinists
- Metal die finishers
- Metal gauge makers
- Plastic die makers
- Precision machinists
- Production machinists
- Tool and die makers
- Tool room machinists
Steps to becoming a machinist
1. Earn a high school diploma
Recommended classes to take in high school include math, shop, and computer programming.
2. Get an apprenticeship
Apprenticeships are offered by many businesses. The programs allow students to work while they study and gain valuable hands-on experience. Employers typically partner with trade schools and community colleges. Many employers will keep apprentices as journeymen machinists once they’ve completed the apprenticeship.
You can find information on apprenticeships at your trade school or community college, as well as at Apprenticeship.gov.
3. Get a certificate or degree
You can get a certificate from community colleges, vocational schools, and trade schools. Many community colleges also offer associate’s degree programs. You can also get a CNC machinist or operator certificate from an accredited program.
Some top schools include:
- Akron CNC Training Center
- Pinellas Technical College
- NTMA Training Centers
- Houston Community College
- Lincoln Tech
4. Get certified
Certification isn’t a requirement, but for those who want to improve their skill sets and stand out from the crowd, certification is a great way to do that. Many schools and organizations offer certification programs. A typical requirement for certification in a machinist specialization is a combination of education and on-the-job training. Some top certifications include:
- Milling I Certification – offered by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS), this credential demonstrates your knowledge of planning, machine operations, and safety standards, as well as your competency with drilling, reaming, and face milling. The program consists of a 56-question theory exam and a performance assessment, which is evaluated by a committee.
- Grinding I Certification – offered by MIMS, this certification validates your knowledge of basic surface grinding applications. Skills mastered include your ability to balance and mount grinding wheels, configure machines, and read prints. You’ll have to pass a 47-question exam and complete a panel-reviewed performance assessment to earn this credential.
- CNC Mill Programming Setup and Operations Certification – also offered by NIMS, this credential proves your ability to set up and operate a CNC milling center, maintain records, manage equipment, and program a CNC machine, including using motion commands, plotting coordinates, and programming words. Your proven skills include the ability to inspect and maintain machines and adhere to shop safety, including fire prevention and waste removal. Certification involves passing an 82-question exam and a performance assessment for a committee of judges.
- Manufacturing Technician Level I Certification – available through the Manufacturing Skills Institute, this certification proves your competency in manufacturing and production-related jobs. The assessment consists of three modules: math and measurement, spatial reasoning and manufacturing technology, and quality and business acumen. Prior work experience is recommended before taking the exam.
- Certified Manufacturing Technology Sales Engineer – the Association for Manufacturing Technology offers this certification for engineers who sell CNC machines. The credential demonstrates your knowledge of business, sales, customer service, and manufacturing technology, including cutting tools, machine control, and metal-forming technology. One year of sales experience for a manufacturing distributor and either four years of work experience or two years of experience and an undergraduate degree are required. Certification can be renewed every three years by completing an online course and paying a fee.
- Certified Metalworking Fluids Specialist – offered by the Society of Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers, this credential proves your knowledge of machining processes, metallurgy, and tooling filtration. You must have an associate’s degree in a related field, such as manufacturing technology, and three years of work experience in a manufacturing environment. The exam covers metalworking operations, plant operations, fluid condition management, and more. The certification is valid for three years.
- Certified Associate in CAM for 2.5 Axis Milling – administered by Autodesk, this course is designed for candidates who have advanced skills and can solve complex challenges in workflow and design using Fusion 360. The certification shows your skills in drawing and organizing objects, planning manufacturing processes, CAD modeling and model preparation, creating and simulating CNC milling toolpaths, and creating documents for setting up and running a CNC mill. To earn your certification, you must pass an exam. The credential is good for three years.
5. Join machinist associations
Machinist association websites offer a wide range of resources, job opportunities, apprenticeship opportunities, and more. Some of the top associations are:
- International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
- National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS)
- National Tooling and Machining Association
- Precision Metalforming Association
- American Mold Builders Association
- Association for Manufacturing Technology
- Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International
- Manufacturing Institute
- Precision Machined Products Association
Tips for becoming a machinist
If you are planning to become a machinist, there are a few things you can do to get ahead of the game.
- Make sure your interests line up with what a machinist does. If you like working with machines and machining tools, if you are well organized, have keen attention to detail, and like to craft, build, or repair machinery and mechanized objects, you have the basic tools to become a machinist.
- Get your high school diploma. You typically won’t be able to find a job or an apprenticeship without it. Take relevant classes, such as algebra, trigonometry, drafting, shop, etc.
- Research opportunities for apprenticeships in your area. Training typically takes about 4 years to complete.
- Consider getting a certificate from a trade school or an associate’s degree from a community college.
- Consider getting certified in a specialty. This might depend on your interests or the opportunities in your area.
- Decide whether you want to work with manual machines or pursue a career using CNC machinery.
Machinist interview questions to expect
- Why do you believe having a coolant on every machine is important?
- Your machine is leaving metal scraps wrapped around the tip. How will you prevent this to ensure the machine is working to the best of its ability?
- If you’re working with soft materials, should you be using form taps or aluminum tips?
- How much tonnage is required from a press to drive 1/16″, 3/32″, and 1/8″ broaches?
- How do you protect yourself from the machines that you’re working with? What are proper protocols for your hair, shirt, and sleeves?