CNC Machinist Career Overview

A computer numerical control machinist, or a CNC machinist, operates programs and maintains CNC machines. They are also called upon to fix specific issues that may come up with the machinery.

Unlike CNC operators, a CNC machinist can perform more advanced tasks than just operating the machine. For this reason, it isn’t surprising to see CNC machinists begin their careers as CNC operators.

If you would also like to consider a career as a CNC machinist, this article is a great place to start. Below is a comprehensive guide containing everything you need to know about becoming a CNC machinist, including possible career paths, educational requirements, certification, and licensing requirements.

What Does a CNC Machinist Do?

Machines powered by computer numerical control (CNC) produce all sorts of precision metal parts, tools, and instruments. A CNC machinist’s job is to overlook these machines’ installation, operation, and maintenance.

As more and more companies are starting to use computer programs in their production, CNC machinists are more in demand than ever.

Along the course of a day’s job, you will most likely find a CNC machinist reading blueprints and mechanical drawings, loading raw materials needed for production onto the machines, running test checks to see if the machine is functioning as it should, and of course, actually preparing and operating the CNC machine for its central processing.

CNC Machinist Work Environment

CNC machinists can work in several industries, including companies that manufacture machines, machine shops, and transportation equipment.

As a machinist, you must be prepared to work with machine tools that may sometimes cause exposure to mildly hazardous materials.

To guard against this, machinists must take precautions to avoid injuries, such as wearing safety glasses and other protective equipment.

As for their work schedules, CNC machinists tend to work full-time following the regular business hour pattern. Those who work in specific industries and facilities may be required to work night shifts.

How to Become a CNC Machinist

The following are the critical steps involved in becoming a CNC machinist.

Prerequisites & Preparation

Employers like to consider candidates with a solid educational background. For this reason, a high school diploma or GED is the very least an aspiring CNC machinist must have.

It also helps significantly to take courses in technical drafting, metalworking, and blueprint reading.


There are three categories of CNC machinists: operating, set-up, and programming. It helps to get familiar with the duties involved in these categories before getting started.

An operating machinist ensures that CNC machines function correctly, while a set-up machinists monitor and maintain the device to ensure smooth operation.

Lastly, a programming machinist is responsible for coding the programs and tweaking the code to allow for better, more optimized performance.

Training Programs

CNC machinists don’t have to possess a degree, but it helps significantly to do so. Those with a degree are more likely to find employment quickly and earn a higher yearly salary.

Pursuing a certificate program is another viable alternative for those looking to fast-track their training. While a bachelor’s degree and an associate degree take four and two years, a certificate program can be completed within 10 - 12 months.

Formal Apprenticeship

Most of what a CNC machinist does requires real-world training on the job. For this reason, even those who graduate from a formal training program such as a college or vocational school program still spend a fair deal of time learning their duties “on the job.”

Apprenticeship programs offer a unique opportunity to acquire this hands-on training and be mentored by actual professionals with years of experience in the field.

Among other things, apprentices learn about safety standards and practices, computer-aided design, programming, and the basics of CNC operation.

Becoming Certified

While no law requires CNC machinists to obtain certification, most choose to do so simply because it helps prove proficiency to prospective employers and allows them to network with fellow certified machinists.

Certification is a sign that a CNC machinist has the needed skills to do the job at a very high level. One of the most popular certifications a CNC machinist can get is the credential offered by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS).

To obtain this certification, candidates must sit for and pass a performance-based written and practical exam.

Secure Employment

Once all the above steps have been completed, individuals may seek employment in their chosen company. CNC machinists have been known to work in the aerospace, automotive, power generation, rail, and marine industries.

Certification and Licensure Requirements

As mentioned above, CNC machinists may become certified to demonstrate their proficiency and increase their job prospects. Other than this, most states have no licensure requirements for CNC machinists.

CNC Machinist Salary

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics revealed, CNC machinists earn an annual median salary of $47,730. Those who make the highest may make as high as $68,250 per year, while the lowest ten percent in yearly salary totals around $30,220.

Sorting by industry, CNC machinists in transportation equipment manufacturing earned the highest annual average at around $49,010, followed by machinists in machinery manufacturing, who made an average yearly salary of $47,700.

Machine shop and employment services machinists round up the list with annual averages of $47,510 and $30,500.

Experience, location, and work schedules often dictate how much a CNC machinist earns throughout the year.

Job and Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an opening of about 44,100 positions for machinists between 2021 to 2031. Most of these openings will arise due to the projected adoption of more CNC-dictated productions in the coming decade. Retirement and movement of existing machinists into other occupations will also contribute to the openings.