A Breakdown of the Different CNC Careers

Manufacturing is evolving. Today, modern manufacturing firms are adopting advanced technologies, systems, and equipment that is computer-controlled – Enter CNC machining. Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machining is transforming the manufacturing industry from dull to cutting-edge. And because of this development, a new breed of manufacturing professionals is needed to step in.

CNC careers are on the rise. If you are interested in pursuing a job in CNC machining, now is the time to get started. But first, it’s important to understand which types of CNC careers you can pursue.

CNC Operators and CNC Machinists

In many organizations, there is virtually no difference between a CNC machinist and a CNC operator – in fact, the two titles are often used interchangeably. Typically, operators and machinists share very similar responsibilities and function, setting up and working with computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines to cut and produce parts. Of course, their job descriptions and titles vary place to place.

It is not uncommon to hear about some subtle differences between CNC operators and CNC machinists. Ask a worker in the field, and she/he may tell you that CNC operators are generally more entry-level, while CNC machinists have more experience and developed skills. In many companies, you will find that CNC operators work under the direction of CNC machinists. CNC machinists, on the other hand, do not need to be supervised while operating machinery.

While, technically, there are slight differences between operators and machinists, there is a clear, definite distinction between entry-level CNC operators and CNC setup operators (also known as CNC setup machinists):

CNC setup machinists prepare a machine for production. They read blue prints, sketches, and computer-aided designs from a CNC programmer (we’ll get to that role in a minute) and enter those precise instructions into a CNC machine. The setup machinists then align, secure, test and adjust cutting equipment to ensure it can accurately create parts. Only once the machine is fully readied and set-up, the entry-level operator can take over production. Some setup machinists work directly with a CNC programmer to modify programs and instructions.

Entry-level CNC operators are responsible for helping to load materials (such as metals and plastics) into CNC machines for production. Under the supervision of an experienced machinist, the CNC operator calculates the amount of material to feed into a machine, determines the cutting path, and adjusts the operating speed of the machine as it works. Upon completion of cutting a part, the CNC operator will inspect it for quality and ensure it matches specifications. CNC operators are also responsible for cleaning and maintain CNC equipment. If something goes wrong in the operation, a CNC setup machinist may step in to help troubleshoot mechanical or quality issues.

Looking at CNC operator careers holistically, the titles of CNC machinist and CNC setup machinist carry the most professional weight, and typically indicate a high level of expertise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, machinists earn slightly more annually than operators, due to their level of experience.

CNC Programmer

The heart of the CNC rests in the hands of CNC programmers – the professionals who develop the programs and instructions needed to work CNC machinery. As described by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, CNC programmers “develop computer programs to control the machining or processing of metal or plastic parts,” directing machines on how to get a certain job done.

In order to create programs for CNC machines, these professionals must first read blueprints and 3-D computer designs to understand the specifications for a given part. Then, programmers must make calculations to determine how much material is needed, how quickly it should be fed into the machine and cut, where certain fabrications (such as holes) need to be placed, and so forth. Once all the details are determined, CNC programmers then code the specifications into numbered, sequential instructions for a machine (and the machinist) to follow.

After the CNC programmer’s job is complete, CNC machinists step in to set up and operate the appropriate machine. In some organizations, CNC machinists will also take on the duty of programming the instructions into the machines and lathes themselves. In other workplaces, a CNC machinist might work directly with a CNC programmer to do so.

CNC programmers are highly skilled and well-versed in technology and mechanics. Because of the advanced skills required, many employers looking for CNC programmers today will look for candidates holding an associate CNC machining degree. According to the BLS, CNC programmers make more than machinists and operators, with a median annual salary of $52,550.

How to Get Started in a CNC Career

If you are just starting out in the field of CNC, your role will likely start as an operator. This position will allow you to gain proficiency in basic machine operation and become familiar with the fundamentals of computer numerical control. Entry-level CNC operator careers typically advance into more technical job titles, such as that of the machinist and programmer, over time.

This is not the only pathway you can take into a CNC career, however. While there are no universal CNC requirements, the best way to become a CNC machinist and advance in the field fast, is to pursue some level of postsecondary training. In fact, most employers today in Connecticut prefer applicants who have earned their CNC certification or degree. 89 percent of Connecticut manufacturers want candidates who already know CNC machining, and 86 percent hope to hire those with knowledge of CNC programming.

At Goodwin College, students gain hands-on training with lathes, mills, and other state-of-the-art equipment in our CNC training programs. Students also work regularly with CAD and CAM software, read blueprints and technical drawings, and learn how to set-up, program, and operate CNC tools. Upon completion, students are well-prepared to pursue their National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) credential. It is no wonder, then, why so many of our graduates have found jobs in:

  • CNC Machine Programming
  • CNC Machine Set-up
  • CNC Machinist (Lathe and Mill)
  • CNC Operator (Lathe and Mill)
  • Manual Machine Operator

To learn about Goodwin College’s CNC machining certificate and degree programs in Connecticut, please do not hesitate to call 800-889-3282. You may also request more information by visiting www.goodwin.edu/landingpages/cnc.