From the tallest skyscrapers to the smallest microchips, most marvels of modern engineering got their start on paper. Although architects and engineers are typically responsible for the overall design of a particular product or project, they often turn to computer-aided design (CAD) technicians — also called CAD operators or drafters — to create the detailed schematics necessary to bring the idea into reality.
But what exactly is computer-aided design? How much does a CAD technician make? We'll provide answers to those questions and more on this page, as well as discussing how to become a CAD technician and the difference between online CAD courses and those offered in traditional classrooms. Continue reading below for more info on this profession at the intersection of art and science.
What do CAD technicians do?
The specific responsibilities of CAD technicians tend to depend heavily on the industry segment where they're employed, not to mention the individual project on which they're assigned to work, but there are some general duties that many drafting and CAD tech positions have in common:
- Working from rough sketches to create design plans using the latest CAD software
- Specifying dimensions, procedures, materials and other details in the finished plan
- Conceptualizing projects and products under the supervision of engineers and architects
- Managing the storage and accessibility of CAD files and source material
The architectural, engineering, manufacturing and construction industries employ more than 80 percent of working CAD technicians. Regardless of industry, most CAD technicians spend most of their time on the job at computer workstations in standard office environments.
What are CAD technician specializations?
The career fields where CAD is widely used tend to have a high degree of technical precision, so training to meet the demands of a certain type of drafting can help boost your chances of landing a good job. Here are a few of the specialized CAD tech positions that you may qualify for after graduation, depending on your education:
- Architectural drafter
- Civil drafter
- Mechanical drafter
- Electrical drafter
- Electronics drafter
These specialties may be taught in the curriculum of a standard associate degree in computer-aided drafting and design, but some institutions provide specialized training under other degree titles. Also keep a lookout for architectural technology, electronics engineering technology and other similarly named programs — they often have CAD sections and can concentrate your efforts on a given specialization.
How to Become a CAD Technician
Prospective CAD technicians can take a variety of routes into the workforce, including non-degree certificate programs and full-fledged bachelor's degrees, although the most common path is probably a general associate degree in computer-aided drafting and design. These programs are offered at vocational schools, community colleges and technical institutes, and may be available at four-year universities in some cases.
Here's a quick list of common educational steps taken on the way to a CAD technician career:
- Obtain your high school diploma or equivalent
- Enroll in a vocational school or community college program
- Decide whether or not to specialize
- Consider American Design Drafting Association (ADDA) certification
If you're in high school, it can be helpful to take courses in math, science, computer graphics, technology and design to help you prepare for the challenges of a college CAD program. Depending on your specialization, essential courses at the collegiate level may include the following:
- CAD Methods
- Visualization techniques
- Isometric drawing
- 3D modeling
- 2D modeling
- Architectural drafting
- Civil/topographical drafting
- Structural drafting
- Geographical information systems
- Plane surveying
CAD technician degree and certificate programs
CAD technician schools offer an array of programs for different learners, some of which may be completed in a year or less of full-time study. Here's some detail about the various program levels available:
- Undergraduate certificate. These non-degree programs typically require the shortest time commitment, sometimes taking fewer than 20 credit hours to complete. They tend to cover the general basics of the discipline but may contain some courses relevant to specialized drafting fields.
- Diploma. Career diploma programs provide more extensive training than certificates but also tend to require a fewer courses overall than associate degree plans. Many diploma programs contain dedicated specialization tracks, but they are often light on general academic courses.
- Associate degree. As the widely recognized educational standard for CAD technicians, two-year associate degree plans generally cover the field's essential subjects in considerable depth and contain the full complement of general education credits necessary for transfer into bachelor's programs if you decide to continue your education.
Four-year bachelor's degrees are also available from CAD technician schools, although they are typically offered under names like engineering design technology and tend to dive deeply into the particular skills of one industrial specialization.
Hands-on training at CAD technician schools
Some CAD technician programs, particularly at the diploma and associate degree levels, may offer internship or externship sections in which experienced students can gain real-world experience by applying their new skills at a participating design firm or other industry employer. The lengths and requirements of these sections vary by degree program, so check with an advisor at your chosen school for more details.
Online CAD courses and programs
Many computer-aided drafting schools offer online study plans, which can make it easier to schedule a college program around your existing responsibilities. Some of these programs may take a hybrid approach, delivering some courses in the virtual classroom and some on traditional campuses, while others may consist of entirely online CAD courses.
The structure of online CAD courses can vary from school to school. Synchronous online courses require virtual attendance at specific days and times, similar to the way brick-and-mortar classes are scheduled, while lecture attendance and classwork in asynchronous courses can be done at any given time throughout the course term.
CAD technician certifications
The American Drafting Design Association (ADDA) is the primary U.S. source for CAD certification programs. The ADDA offers multiple certification options, each of which is recommended for professionals at different levels of expertise:
- Apprentice drafter (AD) certification is recommended for entry-level workers and focuses on architectural and mechanical drafting
- Certified Drafter (CD) certification also focuses on architectural and mechanical drafting and recommends that applicants have up to two years of experience on the job
- Certified Design Drafter certification requires at least some post-secondary training, expects applicants to have three to five years of experience on the job and focuses on civil engineering concepts.
- Certified Digital Designer certification also expects three to five years of relevant work experience and requires post-secondary training, but is intended for visual communication and digital photography professionals.
All ADDA certifications must be renewed every three years. Relevant employment of two to three years and 30 additional contact hours of training are required for successful renewal.
Graduates of CAD technician schools may also pursue vendor-specific certifications from major equipment suppliers. Software company Autodesk, for example, offers certification programs for many of its individual engineering and 3D design tools:
- Autodesk AutoCAD
- AutoCAD Civil 3D
- Autodesk Inventor
- Autodesk Revit
- Autodesk Fusion 360
Career advancement options for CAD technicians
Putting in several years on the job and developing a reputation for high-quality work can open doors to positions that come with additional responsibilities and offer a higher a CAD technician salary. Workers who specialize in one area of the industry often have more advancement options than those who choose to remain generalists.
It's also possible to take the skills you've learned as a drafter and translate them to a full-fledged career as an architect or engineer, particularly if you completed an associate degree program before heading out into the workforce. A bachelor's degree or higher is often necessary for those professions, so transfer credits can be a big plus.
The Best CAD Drafting/Technology Programs in the U.S.
We looked at an array of data for over 170 community colleges and trade schools that have been accredited by at least one agency and focus their educational efforts on associate degree and certificate programs. Our analysis included statistics on average net price of enrollment, schedule flexibility, student services availability, three-year graduation rate and more. Read on to learn more about the best CAD technology programs in the country.
Located roughly halfway between Rockford and Chicago, Elgin Community College has a student body of around 9,500 learners. The Elgin institution's rates of on-time graduation and first-year student retention each wound up ranked No. 2 out of all schools that made our list, and only two other schools in our top ten reported a higher percentage of alumni remaining employed for at least six years after graduation.
CAD technology programs at ECC: CAD technology students here can choose between an associate degree program and a basic certificate plan. The certificate requires 17 credit hours to complete and teaches the basics of CAD software and techniques. The associate degree plan provides more comprehensive training and can typically be completed in 4 semesters of full-time study.
Waubonsee Community College was founded in 1966 and dedicates itself to creating degree programs that give students the tools they need to succeed in a high-tech job market. More than 88 percent of graduates reported gainful employment six years after completing their programs, and the average net price for enrolled students landed it in the top 25 nationwide for affordability.
CAD technology programs at WCC: One Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.) CAD degree and two certificate plans are offered at this institution in Chicago's far western suburbs. The certificates have different goals and program lengths — the architectural drafting certificate requires 21 credit hours and includes some training in residential and commercial architecture, while the general certificate focuses only on CAD technology.
This institution near the Illinois state border with Wisconsin welcomes more than 14,000 students each term, but its campus shouldn't feel overcrowded. The student-faculty ratio here is a comfortable 17:1, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), and around one-fifth of the student body takes at least some of their required courses in the online classroom.
CAD technology programs at CLC: Robust and specific CAD training is available at CLC, with two separate A.A.S. plans and no fewer than seven concentrations offered at the certificate level. Areas of study in certificate programs include AutoCAD, 3D parametric drafting, architectural/civil drafting and graphics, animation and presentation. Graphics and animation is also available as an A.A.S. concentration, along with mechanical drafting for engineering.
Affordability is the name of the game at Chattahoochee Technical College. Average net price measures the out-of-pocket cost for tuition, fees, books, supplies, housing and other essentials after financial aid like grants and scholarships is factored in, and just five institutions nationwide reported a lower average net price than the $3,115 posted by this Atlanta-area institution of around 10,000 students.
CAD technology programs at CTC: Students here have three levels of CAD program to choose from: an associate degree in drafting technology, a 49-credit diploma program and several technical certificates of credit. The certificates range in length from the 34-credit advanced CAD technician plan to a drafter's assistant program that consists of just 11 credit hours in three courses.
Charleston may be home to Trident Technical College's administrative campus, but students all across the greater region can take advantage of its approximately 150 academic and career programs. The more than 15,000 students enrolled here can choose among full-service campuses in Charleston, North Charleston, Moncks Corner and Mount Pleasant, and more than 63 percent take at least some of their courses online.
CAD technology programs at TTC: Many of the CAD technology programs here are offered as engineering graphic design career certificates. Students can concentrate in one of five software tools — AutoCAD, Revit, CATIA, Inventor and SolidWorks -- or opt to bundle multiple tool-based certificates into a single study plan. A 13-credit certificate in civil drafting is also available.
Lanier Technical College posted an average net price that took a top-20 spot among all CAD technology schools we surveyed nationwide. The institution reports that fully half of enrolled students in 2018 were awarded financial aid through federal Pell Grants or Georgia's state-run HOPE grant and scholarship program, so give this north Georgia institution a second look if you're hoping for some help paying for school.
CAD technology programs at LTC: The drafting technology degree at LTC consists of 60 credit hours of coursework and allows students to specialize in either mechanical or architectural drafting. The diploma program, which covers similar CAD career topics as the degree but skips over most general education courses, offers mechanical and architectural drafting specializations as well.
Central New Mexico Community College serves more than 22,000 students each term, making it the largest community college in the Land of Enchantment. Roughly 40 percent of that total, or 8,800 learners, take at least some of their courses via digital distance education. The catalog here is one of the largest of any school we looked at for this study, offering over 200 degrees, certificates and other training options.
CAD technology programs at CNM: CNM offers CAD training through either an A.A.S. degree or a certificate of completion in architectural/engineering drafting technology. The certificate program is a 31-credit plan that typically requires around two and a half semesters of full-time study to complete, and the 61-credit A.A.S. covers multiple drafting disciplines.
Close to 12,000 students attend classes at Lansing Community College's two full-service campuses each semester, but the central Michigan school works hard to ensure that its students don't feel like anonymous faces in the crowd. The student-faculty ratio at LCC was 11:1 in 2018 — roughly 31 percent better than the national university average — which means that those who are looking for one-on-one help from professors are likely to find it here.
CAD technology programs at LCC: CAD students at LCC train at the institution's Center for Manufacturing Excellence, an 11,000 square foot dedicated facility for manufacturing education. The A.A.S. program provides the deepest knowledge of manufacturing CAD and its principles, and two certificate programs offer scaled-down versions of the associate degree curriculum.
Founded in 1947, this 200-acre institution on the banks of the Rio Grande educates more than 10,000 students each year and featured the best first-year student retention rate of any of our top ten CAD schools. Laredo College's main Fort McIntosh Campus features exciting amenities like a fine arts center, an environmental science center, fitness facilities and more.
CAD technology programs at LC: The array of CAD programs at this South Texas institution includes an associate degree, two comprehensive certificate plans at different levels of depth and four marketable skills achievement awards designed to train you in a specific skillset. Skills programs require 9-12 credit hours of study and cover basic CAD, architectural drafting, 3D modeling and geographical information systems (GIS).
This small institution located about 70 miles west of Philadelphia might be a great choice for CAD students who like to study in peace and quiet. Just over 1,200 students were enrolled at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in 2018, and its home city of Lancaster has a population of fewer than 60,000 residents — pretty much the perfect size for a college town.
CAD technology programs at Stevens: Two separate programs at this southeastern Pennsylvania school can prepare you for CAD careers. The associate degree in architectural technology fuses CAD training with an education in architectural principles, while the mechanical engineering technology degree includes training in engineering fundamentals like fluid mechanics, thermodynamics and machine design.
Skills and Abilities for CAD Technicians
Just like in any profession, certain traits can be better predictors of success than others. The Occupational Information Network (O*NET) lists these skills and abilities as being especially valuable for aspiring CAD technicians and drafters:
- Critical thinking can help you make the right design choice for a given situation, particularly if you don't have a lot of experience with it
- Reading comprehension is essential to a drafting career — many of the designs you'll be asked to formalize will come with copious notes and other written instructions
- Visualization, or the ability to imagine how things would look from different angles or with their parts rearranged, can be a major blessing when 3D modeling
- Mathematics skills come at a high priority as well, since a great deal of drafting work is only correct when it's mathematically precise
- Information ordering can help you arrange the elements of a CAD design in the right order according to the specific rules of the project
CAD Technician Salary and Career Outlook
It should be clear by now that drafting is a vital part of the engineering and architecture industries, but how much does a CAD technician make? Several factors can influence a CAD technician salary, including the state where you live and the particular industry segment where you're employed, but national average figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics can give you a decent idea of what to expect. Here's a quick table of CAD technician salary and job outlook data you might expect, based on related careers:
|Career||Total Employment||Annual Mean Wage||Projected Job Growth Rate|
|Architectural and Civil Drafters||97,610||$56,700||8.1%|
|Drafters, All Other||14,580||$54,240||7.9%|
|Electrical and Electronics Drafters||24,900||$64,400||6.7%|
Professional Resources for CAD Technicians
Several professional groups are working hard to ensure that industry practices and legislative circumstances are as favorable as possible for drafters and CAD technicians. Here's a brief rundown of some of those groups, including some where you can apply for membership:
- The Association for computer-aided Design in Architecture (ACADIA) produces an annual conference and provides multiple trade journal subscriptions either as part of membership or for a small additional fee.
- The CAD Society is a non-profit industry association that dedicates itself to fostering community and improving the tools of its members' trade through measures such as developing modern interoperability guidelines for CAD software.
- Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education (PACE) works with industry partners to ensure that engineering and CAD curriculum standards are up to date at universities across the globe.
Using the National Center for Education Statistics' Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, we generated a list of schools that met the following criteria:
- Institution type is less than 2 years, greater than 2 & less than 4 years
- Accredited by at least 1 agency (institutional accreditation)
- The school falls under one of the following classifications: (Carnegie Classification 2015: Undergraduate Instructional Program)
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with 30-49% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
- Associate's Colleges: Mixed Transfer/Vocational & Technical
Associate's Colleges: High Vocational & Technical
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with more than 50% of awards (degrees and certificates) in career & technical programs.
Special Focus: Two-Year Institution
- These institutions awarded associate's degrees but no bachelor's degrees with typically more than 75% of awards in a single career & technical program
- The school must offer at least 1 program for the subject in question
We ranked the resulting colleges on the following variables:
- Cost of attendance, based on the average net price for students receiving scholarship and grant aid, and the total cost of tuition, fees, books and supplies, National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificate programs offered for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- No. of Associate degree and undergraduate Certificates conferred for the subject (relevant CIP codes), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016-17
- Percent of undergraduate students enrolled in any distance education classes, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017
- Full-time student retention rate & part-time retention rate (if full-time retention rate is not available, then use part-time retention rate), National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2017
- The graduation rate in 150% time, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Percent of students working and not enrolled 6 years after entry, College Scorecard, 2014-15
- Flexibility and student services, based on whether the school offers the following services, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017-18
- Academic and career counseling
- Job placement services for graduates
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- Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017-18, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed May 2019, http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/
- Most Recent Cohorts (All Data Elements): 2014-15, College Scorecard, U.S. Department of Education, accessed May 2019, https://collegescorecard.ed.gov/data/
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