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How do I Become a CNC Machinist?

By Carol Francois
Updated May 16, 2024
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There are four steps required to become a CNC machinist: post-secondary training, related work experience, certification, and completing the job interview process. A computer numerical controlled (CNC) machinist works with large machines that translate a three dimensional design into a physical product. This career is forecast to experience below average growth in the next five to ten years in North America, as the manufacturing sector continues to relocate to other nations.

The CNC machine take a computer file from a computer assisted design (CAD) program and uses it to determine which tools are required and when. This machine has multiple tools that are often combined into a single cell or unit. The program provides the details of the design, but it is the machinist’s role to ensure that the program is correct and creates the desired product in the most efficient manner possible.

People who are mechanically inclined, skilled at working with tools, and have excellent hand-to-eye coordination find the greatest enjoyment in this role. While this career has traditionally been male-dominated, an increasing number of women are training to become a CNC machinist. A CNC machinist is responsible for the programming, maintenance, and operation of the CNC machine. These machines are found in manufacturing facilities and range in price from $200,000 to $5 million US Dollars (USD).

The first requirement to become a CNC machinist is to complete a post-secondary education program. This program is available from a wide range of community and career colleges. Although there used to be a range of apprentice opportunities available to become a CNC machinist, this is no longer the case. Instead, candidates are required to complete a training program first, and then apply for a position.

Related work experience is obtained through on-the-job training as part of the CNC machinist training program. During a job placement course, candidates have an opportunity to practice skills learned in the classroom and gain both experience and references. Talk with the admissions counselor about the type of job placement programs available.

CNC machinist is a skilled trade and is regulated by the government. All machinists must complete a certification examination to become a journeyman machinist. The examination is usually multiple choice and is designed to test the basic knowledge of the candidate, as well as ensure he or she is aware of all the related safety requirements for this job.

During the job interview process, take the time to prepare for the interview. Think of a list of standard interview questions and prepare your answers in advance. Some employers will have a short test of your mechanical skills as part of the interview process. Although there are limited advancement opportunities for a CNC machinist within an organization, a skilled machinist can increase his salary significantly throughout his career. A master machinist is an expert in the field and can design new products, train new staff, and manage several other machinists.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By CNCdude — On Mar 20, 2014

I am a displaced worker trying to reinvent my self/career I live in San Diego and have been having a hard time getting training for CNC. City and Polamar colleges seem to be the main games in town and because of this its hard to get in. Does anyone know of any trade, apprentice schools or programs in the San Diego County area? Any info will be appreciated.

By anon357621 — On Dec 05, 2013

"This career is forecast to experience below average growth in the next five to ten years in North America."

Can anyone put a date/year to this finding? I mean, is it recent and thus valid?

By anon331127 — On Apr 20, 2013

It depends on the shop. Some recycle employees constantly and always have jobs posted because they hire and fire intentionally. Get in with a small shop and give them some years.

By anon276439 — On Jun 24, 2012

I did six years of machinist courses, especially in lathe, vertical, surface and cylindrical, sharper, milling and welding machine and I have a certificate from Nepal and Bhutan. But my certificates are not recognized. So what I do now?

By anon240879 — On Jan 16, 2012

Wow, they claim that you have to go to school and yet I know a brat who got a job with no experience just because he was friends with the son of the boss. I guess the Good Ol' Boy system still works. He makes $15/hr to start with knowing nothing.

Why can't they list where to go for an education? Why go to school just to be paid crap? I know that experience counts but if your starting wage is so low you can't afford to pay your student loans then what was the point of getting a "higher education"?

By CopperPipe — On Jul 22, 2010

A lot of times work experience is really a dealbreaker when it comes to getting a CNC job, so if anyone out there is looking into the industry, make sure you plan for some time either for internships or low-paying apprenticeships.

By Charlie89 — On Jul 22, 2010

@galen84basc -- CNC machinists need pretty solid math training, since they end up using a lot of math in their day to day work.

When considering translating a 3D design into a physical object, CNC machinists need to understand and be able to use basic arithmetic, geometry and trig.

An understanding of higher maths, like physics and calculus, are definite pluses, since that can help in understanding the hydraulics, volumes, force, etc. that the machines use to make the objects.

Although it's not like you couldn't do the job without the math, and much of it is computer-based, having those math skills is really very advisable.

By galen84basc — On Jul 22, 2010

How much math is involved in CNC machinist work? I know it has a lot to do with calculating angles and whatnot, so what level of math is involved?

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