How to become a CNC machinist (plus duties and skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 12 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

If you're interested in a practical career that requires light engineering skills, IT competency and manual skills, becoming a CNC machinist could be a good career for you. CNC machinists use CNC machines to process materials into smaller parts. This is a vital stage in industrial manufacturing, and CNC machinists are capable technicians with unique and valuable skill sets. In this article, we explore the role of a CNC machinist and consider what a CNC machinist is, how to become a CNC machinist through college or apprenticeships and what skills most CNC machinists possess.

What is a CNC machinist?

Getting a better understanding of the role can help you decide if it's right for you. CNC machinists use computer numerical control (CNC) machines and computer programs to cut parts from solid materials. They work in manufacturing, engineering and other industries that require precision construction. CNC machining is a process where the workpiece moves through a programmed set of movements to cut the piece into the desired shape and size. CNC machinists set up CNC machines by inputting data into a computer system attached to the CNC machine.

CNC machinists are skilled technicians with specific skills in programming CNC machines to cut, drill and grind wood and metal for various sectors, including the aerospace and automotive sectors. As the primary operators of CNC machines, CNC machinists are responsible for maintaining CNC machines, programming them and managing all aspects of CNC machining operations. Some CNC machinists work broadly with lots of different types of CNC machines, while others might specialise in working with a specific type of machine. Some of the typical duties of a CNC machinist include:

  • programming CNC machines with data from technical drawings

  • maintaining CNC machines

  • scheduling machining tasks in the most efficient way

  • choosing the right tools for each stage of the machining process

  • operating CNC machines

  • setting cutting speeds and tolerance levels

  • carrying out quality assurance on finished pieces

  • following strict health and safety rules within the workplace

  • meeting with clients and managers

Related: A complete guide to manufacturing jobs (with examples)

How to become a CNC machinist

If you're interested in learning how to become a CNC machinist, it's useful to understand what skills and qualifications machinists usually have before securing their first role in the industry. There are two common paths to becoming a CNC machinist, both of which enable career starters to develop the technical skills necessary for this role. Follow the steps below to learn how to become a CNC machinist via college or an apprenticeship:

1. Go to college

Most CNC machinists don't have a degree from a university, but qualifications from college or a 16-18 education provider may help you to secure a role as a CNC machinist. Relevant college courses that you can study to become a CNC machinist include:

  • Level 1 Certificate in Performing Engineering Operations

  • Level 1 Certificate in Engineering and Manufacturing

  • Level 2 Certificate in Mechanical Engineering

Usually, to embark upon these college courses you may need at least one or two GCSEs. These courses provide learners with the skills they need for a career in CNC machining and demonstrate commitment to your work to potential employers. Some courses may allow you to get practical experience using CNC machines or similar manufacturing machinery.

2. Undertake an apprenticeship

Alternatively, it's possible to become a CNC machinist by undertaking a relevant apprenticeship. Apprenticeships allow learners to develop their skills and gain qualifications while they work and earn a salary, making this route a good choice for candidates who want to begin working straight away. Relevant apprenticeships for CNC machinists include an intermediate apprenticeship as a machine operative or a furniture CNC technician advanced apprenticeship for those candidates who want to work in furniture manufacturing.

Learning how to carry out CNC machinist responsibilities by undertaking an apprenticeship is an effective way to gain confidence as a machinist and learn from experienced professionals. Learners who find that they learn best when working manually and performing tasks usually find apprenticeships more suitable than college courses. Because apprenticeships pay a modest salary, this option might also suit candidates looking for more cost-effective study options.

Related: How to write an apprenticeship cover letter (with examples)

3. Develop your skills

CNC machining is a technical role that requires a set of specific skills. When you apply for CNC machinist jobs, the most important part of your application is showing that you have the necessary skills for CNC machining. If you can spend some time developing your skills in your spare time, this could help to bolster your application when it's time to apply for roles. This might mean practising with CNC computer software or doing extra reading around some of the basic engineering principles that CNC machinists regularly work with.

4. Get practical work experience

CNC machining is a practical role, and demonstrating practical skills on your CV by undertaking work experience could help you to secure your first job as a CNC machinist. Apprenticeships and some college courses offer practical experience, but you can also demonstrate practical skills by applying for entry-level roles in other manual fields like warehousing, construction and industry. Holding a paid, professional position in a manual role shows that you can take instruction and follow health and safety guidelines within a busy professional environment.

Related: Work experience: definition, importance and tips

5. Apply for roles

Once you have the skills and experience required for a role in CNC machining, start applying for CNC machinist roles in your local area. Look for jobs online using job listings websites like Indeed or browse local listings in newspapers and trade magazines. When you apply for roles, make sure that your CV and cover letter reflect all of the skills that you have developed via college or other courses and tailor your application to each job advert you apply to. Preparing answers to common interview questions using the STAR technique might improve your chances of having a successful interview.

What's it like to be a CNC machinist?

Working as a CNC machinist involves spending long hours working in a factory or manufacturing plant. This is a busy environment so being comfortable working around loud noises for long periods helps. CNC machinists work core hours of 9 am to 5 pm during the day, and overtime is rarely necessary but may sometimes be available for those who want to earn extra income. CNC machinists work at a computer for most of the day, with some time spent maintaining, cleaning and attending to the CNC machines.

As a factory-based role, CNC machining carries some risk of injury and accident, which is why CNC machinists follow strict health and safety guidelines in the workplace every day. CNC machinists may also wear protective clothing, including goggles, face shields and gloves, depending on what kind of material they're working on at the time. Employers provide protective equipment to their staff members and often provide regular health and safety training to all members of staff. Travel away from home is rarely necessary for a CNC machining role.

What skills do CNC machinists possess?

CNC machinists use a range of soft and hard skills daily. The most important skills for CNC machinists are technical skills that enable them to carry out CNC machining efficiently, accurately and safely. This requires a good working knowledge of the machines they work with alongside strong computer skills and basic engineering knowledge. Below is a list of some of the primary skills for CNC machinists working across various sectors:

Engineering knowledge

CNC machinists have essential engineering knowledge that they use in a professional capacity daily. They understand the engineering principles behind machining and know how to use CAD (computer-aided design) software to create and manufacture parts. This requires knowledge of how different machine parts fit together and how engineering drawing works. Being able to read engineering drawings and use the data from these to set the angle, depth and length of the cuts that CNC machines make is necessary.

Related: Engineering skills: definitions and examples

Attention to detail

CNC machinists have good attention to detail, a skill that's possible to develop. Practice being meticulous and conscientious at work to improve your attention to detail and increase your chances of success in CNC machining. Attention to detail helps CNC machinists to notice small imperfections in their work and ensure that the machine parts they cut fit every detail of the designs they follow.

Related: How to improve your attention to detail

Independence

CNC machinists spend most of the day working independently. Important skills for the role include making decisions independently and using their initiative when problems and issues arise, such as technical problems with machines and software. CNC machinists are usually responsible for completing their projects without supervision, which means working well independently while under pressure is a key skill in this career path.

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