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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.
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.