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[10/7/2016] Thousands of relatively high paying machine shop jobs today remain unfilled, contributing to what has been referred to as a jobs/skills gap in the precision machining industry. Recent advances in milling and machining technology and automation, combined with improving economic conditions have put the industry in a rather unique position. Many facilities, including Advanced Precision Machining’s Colorado machine shop, today face difficulty in finding qualified CNC machinists. Job seekers interested in a precision manufacturing career path are recognizing the benefits associated with the work, and are aware of the current demand for qualified candidates. In fact, interest in CNC machining as a career path is today at a high point, or at least higher than it once was. In part 1 of this Advanced Precision Machining blog series, readers were introduced to what it means to be a CNC machinist, the demand for the position, and a short description of what employers are looking for in terms of desired skills. In this second installment, we’ll continue our discussion introducing readers to a variety of available CNC machining positions available, the necessary educational and skills sets needed, and the pros and cons of working in a machine shop environment.
Candidates seeking to gain employment with a CNC machining company typically start on their career path in the the role of an Entry-level CNC operator. This position involves responsibility for operating CNC machining and/or turning centers, and is conducted most often under the direct supervision, and with assistance from an experienced CNC machinist or supervisor. Loading, unloading and adjusting the equipment to ensure proper operation while correctly following written and verbal procedures is critical, as is the ability to read and interpret work orders, blueprints, sketches etc. A high school diploma or the equivalent is needed, and while some machine shops provide on-the-job training, most prefer candidates who have participated in some form of a formal apprenticeship program in conjunction with a community college or technical school. An apprenticeship lasts anywhere from 2-4 years and combines hands-on training with a mix of classroom experience. Proficiency in algebra, measurement skills, and the ability to read technical drawings is also desirable.
Entry-level CNC operators aspire to reach the level of CNC set-up operator. Promotion into this level of employment typically requires higher level machining classes to reach the level of independence necessary to run milling and machining equipment with less supervision. A lead CNC machinist however will still oversee most of the work. CNC set-up operators are generally responsible for the entire run of the job once machines are set up, loaded and running correctly. In addition to the two years it takes to master the role of Entry-level CNC operator, it can take up to two additional years of employment to become proficient at the level of CNC set-up operator. Advanced math skills such as college level algebra, geometry and trig, in addition to higher-level measurement skills and working knowledge in the physical sciences is beneficial to advancement.
The final rung on the milling and machining career path ladder is that of full-fledged CNC machinist. Through hard work, and a combination of on the job training, additional classes, educational programming and experience, CNC set-up operators can reach the level of CNC machinist. CNC machinists are proficient in CNC programing and can write and run both basic and complex programs themselves, and be able to modify these in response to any problems encountered during machining processes. Knowledge in the materials being processed, speeds & feeds, along with a complete understanding of tooling capabilities and applications is required for CNC machinists. In addition to the skills necessary to reach lower level positions, CNC machinists must have developed strong mechanical skills and the ability to interpret and document all quality control standards and the required applications set about by their running operations. So once you moved up the ladder, about how long until you reach the level of CNC machinist? That varies; a lot of it depends on how much work you put into it and your educational history. Most machine shop owners agree that it takes at least three more years to advance into the role of CNC machinist from set-up operator.
Now you have some knowledge about what CNC machining involves, the demand for the work, and what it takes to become a CNC machinist, there are a few pros and cons. As we’ve described, the outlook for job seekers is strong as employers face difficulty in finding suitable candidates, and this demand continues despite advances in automation. There are also many opportunities to specialize in many areas of either production or maintenance machining, and perhaps best of all, no college degree is required. On the downside, necessary apprenticeships are long and sometime difficult to find, the knowledge required to do the job is specialized and complex, the hours tend to be long, and there are the inherent dangers present in working around industrial machinery. However by paying attention to detail and asking good questions, you will find the real classroom is at your place of work.
The bottom line is that thousands of relatively high paying CNC machine shop jobs go unfilled every year, and this shortage has forced employers into some rather unique and new recruiting tactics. As young people, and even more seasoned workers are realizing the earning potential and employment opportunities available in precision manufacturing, the industry is beginning to put a dent in the job/skills gap. Consider milling and machining your way into a great career and come on board.
Want to learn more? Do have questions about the milling and machining industry, or even want to inquire about potential employment opportunities? Contact the expert CNC machinists at APM’s Colorado machine shop for all of your milling and machining needs.
Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he partnered with his friend and colleague, Kirk Tuesburg, currently APM’s machine shop manager, together launching what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.