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CNC Operator Education Requirements and Career Information

Computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinery is used by CNC operators to cut and shape metal and plastic for various types of manufacturing. CNC operators must have mechanical skills and be able to read blueprints. Increasingly, many employers also require CNC operators to have basic computer programming skills and experience with computer-aided design and manufacturing programs.

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Education Requirements to Be a CNC Operator

Many CNC operators are trained on the job and in apprenticeships; however, some complete associate degree programs in manufacturing technology offered through community colleges and technical schools. Certificate programs are also offered through vocational schools, community colleges and commercial trade schools.

CNC operators often advance to the position of CNC programmer or CNC setup operator; these positions may require the completion of additional educational requirements, including advanced coursework in computer programming. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employers in the aerospace and shipbuilding industries sometimes require CNC operators to have a bachelor's degree in engineering (www.bls.gov).

Coursework

Certificate and degree programs include coursework in basic math, CNC machine operation and setup, blueprint reading and CNC tooling. In many programs, students also take courses in computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) and learn basic programming skills for various CNC lathe and laser operations and milling applications.

Apprenticeships

CNC operator apprenticeships offer classroom and hands-on training in the use of machine tools, as well as the manual operation of CNC machines. Apprentices also take classes in CNC programming, math, physics and CAD/CAM. Apprenticeships are often offered through state tooling and machining apprenticeship associations. A CNC operator apprenticeship program can take four years to complete, during which the apprentice is a full-time employee of the sponsoring employer.

Career Information

The BLS reported that there were 157,800 CNC operators employed in 2008. CNC operators monitor equipment used to shape and cut materials used to manufacture everything from cars to televisions. After the CNC machinery has been numerically programmed with design specifications, CNC operators ensure that the equipment runs properly, detecting problems such as vibration and overheating.

They may specialize in a particular type of task, such as CNC lathe or laser operation, or CNC milling. Traditionally, only advanced CNC operators, known as CNC programmers and CNC setup operators, would program, set up and start machines; however, basic programming is increasingly being performed by CNC operators.

Necessary Skills

CNC operators must have excellent mechanical aptitude and experience with equipment, such as precision grinders, machine tools, lathes and lasers, used for cutting, grinding and milling. In addition to having strong troubleshooting and problem-solving skills, they must have good analytical skills and be able to read blueprints and mechanical drawings.

Salary Information and Career Forecast

The BLS reported 2008 hourly wages of $16.03 for computer-controlled machine tool operators working with metal and plastic. The aerospace industry paid the highest wages of $18.89 per hour, while plastics products manufacturing paid the lowest hourly wages of $14.19.

The BLS predicted job growth of seven percent for computer-controlled machine tool operators during the 2008-2018 period, fueled by continued replacement of older machinery with computer-controlled machines. CNC operators with programming skills and experience working with a variety of CNC machines may have an edge in a competitive job market (www.bls.gov).

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