- Machinists, Occupational Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2013, http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes514041.htm
- Machinists and Tool and Die Makers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2014, www.bls.gov/ooh/production/machinists-and-tool-and-die-makers.htm
- Interview with Michael Hester, machinist with the Arkansas National Guard
Machinists use lathes and milling machines to create metal parts with an incredibly high degree of precision. Machinist schools train students to work with a wide range of industrial metal-cutting tools, such as plasma or water-jet cutters, as well as smaller hand tools -- files, hammers, calipers, micrometers and precision measuring and testing equipment. Talented machinists should understand how to read blueprints and operate complicated machinery, as well as possess knowledge of the base properties of different metals.
Machinist training can help provide the skills needed to make a range of hardware, from the titanium screws doctors use in orthopedic implants to the rivets that join airplane wings.
Machinist Education Requirements and Specializations
Machinist training can vary, but most jobs require at least a high school diploma and some kind of apprenticeship or on-the-job training, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS.gov) reports. Advanced mechanical engineering positions, such as jobs in the aerospace and airline manufacturing industry, traditionally require a bachelor's degree, the BLS says. Many related jobs, such as engineering technician, often require a two-year associate degree in engineering technology.
Specialization in the field includes:
- Toolmaker: creates precision tools that cut, shape and form metals
- Die maker: creates metal forms used to shape and stamp metal parts. Die makers also create metal molds used to form plastics, ceramics and other materials
- Millwright: installs and dismantles heavy machinery found in factories and power plants
Machinist schools strive to train students to work as mechanical engineering technicians who help design, develop, test, and manufacture industrial machinery and other equipment by assisting with product testing, creating sketches or analyzing data and estimating costs.
Though certification may not be required to become a machinist, there are a wide range of certification options that could really boost your skills and possibly open up new doors in the industry. This is especially relevant for those who want to specialize in the field, and for when there are new technologies that come out.
Here are a few examples of machinist certifications available, and the organizations that offer them:
- National Career Readiness Certificate (NCRC): General certification provided by the ACT, for foundation skills
- Certified Production Technician (CPT): Offered by the Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC), for cross-cutting technical skills
- National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS): Machining and metalforming certifications, often requiring some postsecondary education
- American Welding Society’s (AWS) Certified Welder Certifications: A postsecondary program that includes skills in structural steel, petroleum pipelines, sheet metal and chemical refining industries
- International Society of Automation (ISA): A global nonprofit that provides many certifications in automation
How to Become a Machinist
As with other skilled trades, there are many different ways to become a machinist. According to BLS data, as well as advice from machinist Michael Hester of the Arkansas National Guard, here are the typical steps to take if you want to become a machinist:
- Take high school classes such as trigonometry, algebra, shop, metals and woodshop. Most machinists deal with a lot of math on the job. Try to load up on math classes to build core math skills. Additionally, some high schools offer really comprehensive elective classes with hands-on building components. This is a great way to make sure you really love to work with your hands, and to gain basic skills.
- Earn a high school diploma or GED equivalency. Most machinist schools and programs require a high school diploma or equivalent in order to enter the program. According to BLS data, a high school diploma is a good basis to have in almost every skilled trade, as well as most other jobs too.
- Earn a degree through a credentialed school or a recognized apprenticeship program. Most two-year schools that provide an AA degree in machining or machine tool technology require a high school diploma or equivalency (GED). If you go through an apprenticeship program through GE, Boeing, Electro-Motive or Ford Motors, it is very likely that would be recognized by other organizations.
- Get certified. Although certification is not required to become a machinist, there are a large number of certifications that can add to your knowledge and supplement your education.
Michael Hester runs the machine shop at Camp Robinson.
Reasons to Pursue a Career as a Machinist
To find out more about how to become a machinist, we spoke with Michael Hester, who has been a machinist since 1988 and has worked in a number of different work and machine shop environments. While he initially trained as an apprentice under a German machinist/tool and die maker, his career has taken him in many different directions and he now runs the machine shop at Camp Robinson in Arkansas.
Q: Why pursue a career as a machinist?
Hester: Most people that even entertain the idea of machining are actually "makers" at heart. What better way to make a living than actually making things? For me, there is a deep satisfaction in making something precise out of a piece of raw material, sort of like a sculptor carving an exquisite statue out of blank piece of marble. In many places I have worked, the pay for a machinist was well above the average mean income. I have been doing this long enough to see that in weak economies, having the skills of a machinist put you in a much better position for work than say a person with a degree in archaeology or hospitality management. If a person makes a long term plan to work for a large company, there is certainly upward mobility.
Q: Is it easy to move up in the career?
Hester: More often than not, if a person sets out to they can move up to designing and even to engineering for the company. Many of the engineers I have worked with started in the shop. It also gives you a great foundation for starting your own business. Almost every machinist will see something that either needs to be made or something that could be made better.
Q: What tips do you have for people starting out in this career?
Hester: Have a career plan, show up early, stay late and work hard when you are there. It sounds simple, but you would be surprised how many people can't even get that done. If you don't care enough to do that, don't expect the boss to care about keeping you on. Do some asking and make sure you are actually the type who will thrive with this type of work. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn something new from the more experienced people in the shop. Take initiative and accept responsibility. Brush up on trig and algebra, nothing fancy, just the simple stuff. Most shops now use at least some CNC machines; brush up on G and M code writing. You don't have to master it, but learning it on your own shows initiative. Always have someone else check your parts before you send them to QA-QC (quality assurance-quality control). It is amazing how easy it is to get the wrong dimensions in your head and think your part is right when it isn't. A second set of eyes can save your bacon.
Machinist salary and career outlook
The field is expected to grow 7 percent -- adding 33,700 jobs -- from 2012 through 2022, the BLS reports. The BLS also reported national median annual salaries for machinists of $39,570 in May 2013, while the highest-paid 10 percent earned at least $60,070 and the lowest-paid 10 percent earned up to $24,280. Texas, California, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois employ the greatest number of machinists.
Workers with computer skills and formal machinist training may have the best job prospects, according to the BLS. The ability to run a variety of CNC and milling equipment is also crucial to career advancement.
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