There are approximately 422,000 machinists working in the United States. Job growth numbers indicate that over the next decade the industry will suffer a slight decline; however, for well-trained or experienced machinists, this should not present a problem in terms of finding work.
Many machinists learn their trade through apprenticeships, on the job training, or in vocational, technical, or community schools. Some machinists have previous experience as machine setters, operators, or tenders.
Lathes, grinders, milling machines, and other machining tools are used to create metal parts that must be precisely calibrated. Anything from a single essential part to large quantities of a particular part might be created. Machinists must be knowledgeable about the various metallic properties and skilled enough with tools to produce items that precisely match specifications. Machinists must have many parts in their working inventory, from bolts and screws to engine pistons.
A machinist’s first step is to study manufacturer’s specifications or blueprints. This helps them determine where the initial cut or bore should be made in the aluminum, steel, titanium, silicon, plastic, or other material. Tools and materials are chosen, and the order of steps from cutting to finishing is determined. The workpiece that is created is marked and placed on the drill press, lathe, milling machine, or other appropriate machine. Controls are set and production begins. The machinist’s most important responsibilities are to supervise the speed at which material is fed into the machine and to ensure that the pieces are uniform and correctly sized. It’s also important that the workpiece is sufficiently lubricated and not overheated, or the machinist will have to adjust cut or bore size accordingly. Machinists monitor machine function to some degree by ear. Excessive vibration, unusual clicks, or dull grinding noises alert them that a part needs to be repaired or replaced.
When the parts are finished, they are measured with precise hand tools as well as highly refined measuring tools to make certain they match blueprints. Many newer machines are computer numerically controlled (CNC). These machines control cutting speed, automatically recognize and change worn tools, and complete all cuts needed to produce a part.
Machinists using CNC machines work with a programmer to input cutting path, cut speed, and material feed rate. Some machinists learn to write or modify basic programs to correct errors discovered during test runs.
Fully automated machines that load materials, change tools, operate computer controls, and adjust calibration as necessary can operate without human interaction or supervision. This means much greater efficiency. In an eight hour shift, a single production machinist can replace dulled cutters, review production for exact precision, make adjustments to offsets, and otherwise monitor a number of CNC machines that work for days at a time without stopping. Evening and night shifts operating CNC machines will only require a handful of operators to manage the entire factory.
Most machinists work in relatively pleasant conditions. Most shops or factories are well lit and ventilated. Because of the number of small parts, counter space and floors must be kept very clean and well organized. More and more modern machines built with computer-controlled mechanisms are enclosed to protect them from dust. This also limits workers’ exposure to noise, flying debris, lubricants and fumes. It is still important that operators pay attention to standard safety rules. Safety glasses and protective ear covers should be worn to protect against airborne bits of sharp metal and excessive noise. Hazardous materials containing chemicals must be handled carefully. Machinists are on their feet during most of their shift; stamina is needed, as is strength because they must lift or carry heavy tools or materials on occasion.
A 40-hour workweek is standard for most machinists, although in some industries evening and weekend shifts are added. Periods of peak production will require some overtime hours.
Some machinists are hired as entry-level trainees and learn on the job. Some have previously worked as machine setters or operators. High school students interested in this work should study trigonometry and geometry in addition to basic math, metalworking, drafting, and computer courses. Apprenticeship programs offered by unions or manufacturers are highly competitive, requiring a high school diploma, algebra and trigonometry classes, as well as computer experience. Apprenticeships combine classroom training with paid on the job experience and can take four years to complete.
Many machinists are turning to two-year associate degree programs offered by trade, technical, or community colleges. In addition to required knowledge, employers seek applicants with tremendous attention to detail, exemplary math and problem solving skills, strength, and stamina. Some state apprenticeship boards and colleges offer certification programs, including journeyworker certification.
Machinists can advance to become CNC programmers or tool and die makers; some eventually move into supervisory or administrative positions.
The median hourly pay for machinists is about $18 per hour. Trainees and those at the low end of the pay scale earn less than $11 per hour. Machinists with considerable experience and who are well trained can earn more than $27 per hour.