There are approximately one million metal and plastic machine setters, operators, and tenders working in the United States. Job growth statistics show rapid decline over the next ten years, down 13%. Setters, operators, and tenders capable of running a number of machines will be more highly sought after than those with little or no experience.
More than 90% of all setters, operators, and tenders work in the manufacturing industry. For most, rudimentary tending operations can be learned in a few weeks of job training. Those who would like to be recognized as highly skilled will devote a year or more to training.
Metal and plastic housing, levers, dials, and other product parts are produced by manufacturing machinery that is run by setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic. There are two distinct sets of tasks. Machine setters ready the machines for production, making sure they are in good working order and that all necessary materials are at hand by initiating a test run. The product is then examined, and any corrections are made. Once the first run looks right, the machine setter will turn it over to the operator or tender. Because many machines are designed to produce a range of products using different tooling or inputs, the machine setter must make sure the machine is properly organized. Any necessary adjustments or small repairs are made before full production begins. If a component becomes worn during production, the machine setter will remove and sharpen it using a file. If a tool must be replaced to produce a second item, it is the setter’s responsibility to do so.
Machine operators and tenders are responsible for running the machine during production. Material might need to be loaded on or off, or a minor correction might need to be made. Although manufacturing machines are largely automated, they must be carefully observed to ensure that the product is uniform and free of defects and that the machine is operating correctly. Materials may need to be added, or the speed at which the machine operates might need to be adjusted. Periodically, items are measured, weighed, or otherwise compared to the standard. If they are not within adequate limits, production is shut down until corrections can be made. Operators will often repair minor problems. Industrial machine mechanics handle larger ones. Operators record production numbers regularly so that they can be tracked over time.
The work responsibilities of setters, operators, and tenders are dependent upon the type of machinery they are assigned. Some workers specialize in a small number of machines. Others can handle a variety.
For the most part, factories where machine setters, operators, and tenders work are clean, well lit, and well ventilated. These workers stand or walk for a great deal of their shift and might also have to lift heavy or bulky objects. It is important for workers to stay alert and follow safety procedures. High-speed machinery can maim or kill in an instant if safeguards are not observed. Most employers require workers to wear safety glasses, earplugs or other ear protectors, steel-toed boots, and leather gloves. Increasingly, modern manufacturing machinery is being enclosed to reduce deafening noise, choking dust, and fumes that can affect the health of workers.
Machine setters, operators, and tenders of metal and plastic typically work 40 hours per week, although shifts may vary and may include evenings, nights, or weekends.
Setters, operators, and tenders who are interested in advancement will have the most success with high school or postsecondary courses in shop, blueprint reading, and metal and plastics properties. Studies in algebra, geometry, statistics, trigonometry, and computers are also likely to increase one’s chances of promotion. Those workers who complete community colleges courses and become certified in metal and plastics machine operations are most likely to be among those in line for a promotion.
Some employers select operators who show special aptitude and pay for their continuing classes. In other cases, a business may provide formal training for all operators and setters. These training sessions almost always include classroom lessons in combination with work experience.
Employers seek individuals who work well on a team, show mechanical aptitude, display manual dexterity, have a background in math, and possess clear communication skills.
Certification in one or more type of machine increases the possibility of advancement. Certifications can be earned at community colleges or through trade groups. Time and experience can result in advancement to positions that demand a higher skill level, such as machinist or tool and die maker. Another means of advancement is to become a floor supervisor.
Pay is largely dependent upon the industry, skill level, size of business, and union membership. Temporary employees earn less than permanent workers. The median hourly pay for machine setters, operators, and tenders—metal and plastic range from about $14 an hour to over $20 an hour.