Learn About Being a CNC Operator

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published December 10, 2019

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

What does a CNC operator do?

A CNC operator produces machined parts by programming, setting up and operating a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. Maintaining equipment, adhering to quality and safety standards and keeping detailed part records are some of the core responsibilities of a CNC operator. Other duties include:

  • Follow all company policies and safety protocols.

  • Set up equipment using proper calibration procedures. 

  • Participate in regular safety and training classes.

  • Strictly follow guidelines for operating machinery.

  • Perform inspections of the work area and machines at the beginning and end of each shift.

  • Use proper handling techniques to load raw materials and unload castings.

  • Perform daily and regular cleaning and light maintenance tasks on CNC machinery.

  • Use specialized instruments to ensure quality requirements.

Average salary

Most CNC operators are full-time employees, with salaries determined by the years of work experience as well as the size and geographic location of the company.

  • Common salary in the U.S.: $16.22 per hour

  • Some salaries range from $7.25 to $29.85 per hour.

CNC operator requirements

Obtaining a position as a CNC operator may involve certain requirements depending on the level of jobs for which you’re applying, including:

Education

Entry-level CNC operators are often required to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in addition to some related experience. Excelling in high school STEM subjects is helpful to those interested in beginning a career in this field. More advanced positions tend to require a diploma focused on engineering or mechanical operations.

Coursework in advanced math, technical drafting, metalworking, machine tooling and computer programming will better prepare CNC operators for specific industry challenges. Blueprint reading, computer-aided manufacturing and other technical courses are offered at trade schools and some community colleges and are highly beneficial to advancement in this career.

Training

Many manufacturing or machining companies offer on-site training with no previous experience required, while other employers require a specified length of time working in similar environments before entering a training program. This training may be part of new employee orientation and is usually paid. Basic training generally takes a few days to a week and can include shadowing current operators and performing duties under supervision. 

Certifications

Certification programs are available to post-secondary students, individuals new to the metal fabrication industry and those who are interested in refreshing their existing skills. Some of the most common certifications for this profession:

Certified CNC Setup Programmer

Offered by the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, Inc. (NIMS),  this level-one (entry-level) certification includes multi-level proficiency in machining, assessing core competencies through apprenticeship programs. Some core competencies covered are:

  • Cutting tool selection and assembly

  • Geometrical dimensioning and tolerancing (GD&T)

  • Machine safety, inspection and maintenance

  • Reading blueprints

  • Machine setup and shutdown procedures

  • Industry-standard safety protocols

Fundamentals of Metal Fabrication certification

This credential, offered through the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA), is for entry-level operators and covers basic concepts. The program focuses on specific topics and uses a curriculum of specific learning objectives. This certification is geared toward technical program students and those new to metal fabrication and must be renewed on an annual basis.

Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO)

This advanced certification is offered by the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International and is the industry’s most recognized and comprehensive examination. This exam assesses proficiency and knowledge of precision sheet metal operations, including shearing, sawing, turret punch press, laser cutting, press brake and mechanical finishing. The PSMO Certification is valid for three years. Recertification requires 24 earned continuing education credits, which can be earned continuing education courses and daily work responsibilities.

Skills

CNC operators require a range of skills to succeed in a machine shop or manufacturing facility, including:

Analytical skills

CNC operators use analytical skills to read and understand part drawings, blueprints, models and other technical specifications related to their craft.

Math and software skills

CNC operators use their knowledge of Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) software daily and must stay up to date on the latest software and tools. They also use math skills to measure dimensions, set parameters in the software and check part tolerances/quality control.

Engineering skills

These skills, particularly mechanical engineering, are especially advantageous because operators need to develop a deep working understanding of how the machinery operates. They’re also required to clean, calibrate and maintain the machines and other tools. 

Problem-solving

CNC operators frequently face problems with design drawings, quality issues and problems with tools and other materials that require the deduction skills and patience to rectify.

Adaptability

In addition to being able to accurately follow instructions, a CNC operator must be adaptable to frequent changes in the work environment, prioritizing competing demands and unexpected delays in production.

CNC operator work environment

CNC operators typically work in manufacturing facilities or machine shops that are generally noisy, hot and have the potential for flying pieces of metal or parts. The environment demands physical conditions such as:  

  • Standing for long periods of time

  • Bending, reaching, lifting, carrying up to 75 pounds

  • Working with machine tooling equipment 

  • Adhering to equipment safety rules and safe work practices 

  • Wearing personal protective equipment, such as safety glasses and earplugs

  • Working with CAD (computer-aided design) and CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) programs

The skills, qualities and experience of CNC operators are often transferable to other industries, including: 

  • Quality control

  • Electrical or mechanical engineering

  • Construction

  • Automotive design

How to become a CNC operator

Here are the most common steps to follow in becoming a CNC operator:

1. Complete high school

Most employers require a high school diploma or equivalent, but you should consider reviewing local job listings to confirm the level of education those employers prefer. After completing high school, consider earning an associate’s degree in tool technology, CAD programming or CNC machine operations to increase your attractiveness as a job candidate. 

2. Gain work experience

While working on a certificate or degree, you will probably gain hands-on experience through courses offered as part of the programs, or you may consider working as an apprentice to get a real-world understanding of the job you’re looking forward to. 

3. Earn technical certifications

CNC operators can hone their skills through certification courses. Gold-standard organizations like The National Institute for Metalworking Skills, Inc. (NIMS) and the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA) offer various certifications in the industry.

4. Prepare your resume

Including the highest level of education you’ve completed and any earned certifications paired with your relevant work experience can help you obtain the CNC operator job you want.

5. Apply to open positions

After you’ve earned your education, completed your certifications and gained on-the-job experience, check local job listings and apply for positions that you are qualified for based on education, experience and specialty. Focusing on what you have to offer as well as what jobs you’re most comfortable in can help increase your chances of being called for an interview. It’s a good idea to write a cover letter summarizing your qualifications for the role and company you’re applying to.

CNC operator job description example

Britax Manufacturing Company is hiring experienced CNC operators to increase our productivity and the quality of our finished products. Qualified candidates can run a variety of CNC machines, perform quality checks and monitor and record hourly machine output readings as well as create detailed reports for upper management. A high school diploma or equivalent and 2+ years of experience working in manufacturing is required, and applicants are encouraged to possess industry-related certifications.

Responsibilities include:

  • Operating, inspecting, cleaning and maintaining CNC machines, performing tasks such as drilling, grinding. milling and lathing

  • Reading and understanding specifications of blueprints, mechanical drawings and other technical documents.

  • Using coding languages to translate instructions into commands that enable the machines to perform the correct function

  • Complying with all safety guidelines and protocols

  • Inspecting finished products, measuring and comparing them to the quality requirements and tolerances set forth for the job

  • Participating in periodic training and safety classes

Related careers

  • Quality manager

  • Mechanical engineer

  • Quality inspector 

  • Manufacturing engineer

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