How to Become a CNC Machinist in 6 Steps (With Salary)

Updated February 9, 2023

Many skilled trades offer exciting and challenging careers, such as a CNC machinist. This career path allows you to work with your hands while creating unique and detailed metallic items. Understanding what a job as a CNC machinist entails can help you better evaluate if this is a career path you're interested in pursuing. In this article, we discuss how to become a CNC machinist, explain what they do and what skills they require, and explore the working environments and conditions, including their average national salary and career outlook.

What does a CNC machinist do?

A CNC machinist is a skilled tradesperson who works with precise metal cutting, shaping, and grinding equipment. Setting up, maintaining, and using this machinery, these professionals create and repair metal parts. They typically work with ferrous metals containing iron, non-ferrous metals with no iron, metal alloys that combine different metals, and sometimes non-metal substances as well. They use milling machines, lathes, grinders, and drills to manufacture and repair these items according to precise measurements and tolerances. CNC stands for computer numerical control, meaning that a CNC machinist must understand the computer language and programming protocol that operates this equipment.

Some of the primary duties of a CNC machinist include:

  • Reading engineered drawings and blueprints to determine the specifications of the parts being made

  • Studying sample parts when specifications are not available to identify the part requirements

  • Preparing working sketches

  • Calculating measurements, dimensions, and tolerances with no discrepancies

  • Identify, measure, and mark materials for machining

  • Setting up computer instructions to operate CNC machines

  • Operating various equipment to produce the desired product

  • Verifying measurements and tolerances against specifications

  • Performing heat treatment on individual components as required

Related: What Does a CNC Machine Operator Do? (With How-to Guide)

How to become a CNC machinist

There are several steps you must complete when becoming a CNC machinist, that includes:

1. Complete your high school diploma or GED

When becoming a CNC machinist, the first step to complete is getting your high school diploma. There are no higher certification requirements for this role, and you can begin your career right after you graduate. If you don't have your high school diploma, you can begin by receiving a passing grade in the five examinations of the general educational development (GED) tests. You'll need either of these qualifications to qualify for an apprenticeship.

Suppose you have already identified that you want to pursue a career as a CNC machinist and are still in high school. In that case, many provinces offer high school students a registered apprenticeship program. You work for a company part-time during your high school education and receive credits toward your chosen trade. This is an excellent opportunity to experience the trade hands-on while still working towards your diploma.

Related: 72 Types Of Trades To Learn For A Successful Career

2. Find an employer willing to apprentice you

Once you have completed your high school diploma or GED equivalent, it's now time to find employment with a company willing to apprentice you. This means that the company must have an eligible CNC machinist journeyperson to supervise your work and sign off on your apprenticeship hours. The apprenticeship program takes four years, and you must complete over 1,560 hours of on-the-job training.

Read More: How To Start An Apprenticeship (With Benefits)

3. Attend classroom training

Part of your apprenticeship also includes attending academic classroom training for eight weeks every year of your program. An employer sponsoring your apprenticeship can help plan for you to take time away from work to attend school every year. Typically, you can apply for employment insurance to ensure you have a consistent income during your absence to attend school. You must complete all four years of schooling and pass each exam to qualify for journeyperson status.

4. Receive your journeyperson status

Once you've completed all training and apprenticeship hours, you complete one final exam. Passing this exam qualifies you as a CNC machinist journeyperson in your province. You are now a qualified tradesperson and often receive a higher wage than other apprentices. You can also sign off on other individuals' apprenticeship hours.

5. Achieve your Red Seal certificate

During the last year of your training, you can also apply for the interprovincial exam as a CNC machinist. After passing this exam, you receive a Red Seal certificate that is recognized across the country, and you become a Red Seal Journeyperson in your trade. This means that your qualifications are valid in any province or territory in Canada, and employers must recognize your journeyperson status.

6. Continue with ongoing learning

Because a CNC machinist works with computer-operated equipment, it's essential to continue with ongoing training and development. Even after completing your journeyperson qualification, techniques and programming methods develop and change. Staying up to date with current technology and best practices ensures you remain a valuable employee.

Related: How to Write a Machinist Resume (With Template and Example)

What skills does a CNC machinist need?

A competent CNC machinist needs a combination of skills to perform the duties and responsibilities of their position. Some of these skills include:

Mechanical aptitude

CNC machinists need a firm foundation in mechanical aptitude. They need to be comfortable working with their hands and understand how things come apart and go back together. Mechanical aptitude includes using hand and electric tools and measuring devices, such as callipers and micrometres. A CNC machinist also requires strong spatial reasoning to identify three-dimensional construction and envision how parts fit together to create a whole product. Finally, mechanical aptitude also requires small motor movements to perform fine detail work by hand.

Critical thinking and problem-solving ability

A CNC machinist uses critical thinking and problem-solving skills daily in their job. They must be able to identify problems and come up with solutions quickly and efficiently. They use critical thinking skills when interpreting blueprints and reading specifications. This includes understanding the basics of metallurgy and heat treatment procedures. Identifying potential challenges and making corrections to avoid them allows for maximum productivity.

Accuracy and attention to detail

The work of a CNC machinist is meticulously precise, with a narrow tolerance for error. Because parts must fit together with exactness, a machinist requires accuracy and attention to detail. We find this focus throughout the machining process, from reading the blueprints to quality checking the final product.

Numeracy skills

A CNC machinist needs a solid understanding of fundamental mathematics. This includes addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. It also requires the use of fractions, decimals, and percentages. In addition, drawings and blueprints often provide critical information that a machinist then works with for further calculations.

Computer literacy

A CNC machinist uses computer-operated machinery to perform their job. Therefore, they need a firm knowledge of the computer software programs that computer numerical control equipment uses to function correctly. Depending on the company, some positions may require the CNC machinist to program the equipment they are using.

What is the working environment of a CNC machinist?

CNC machinists can be found in one of two types of work environments. First, machine shops, also called job shops or manufacturing facilities, employ machinists to produce replacement parts for other companies. Second, many equipment and industries use the replacement parts from machine shops, from industrial construction machinery to intricate health care equipment. Much of this work is custom or one-off and takes skill and expertise to design and manufacture the required parts to the unique specifications.

CNC machinists also work in production shops. Production shops turn out a mass volume of parts for a specific company or product. A production shop's primary goal is to create many products with minimal effort, time, and cost while offering high-quality work that computer numerically controlled machines and operators provide.

Working conditions

Because of their craft, CNC machinists work in manufacturing and production facilities. Often, these shops can be dusty, noisy, and employees come into contact with various chemicals and compounds. For example, petroleum-based products are common when using machinist equipment to clean and maintain the machinery. In addition, CNC machinists work on their feet and can stand for long periods in one place. Depending on what the company is producing, a CNC machinist needs to lift and move heavy items. Most machinists work a full-time work week, with occasional overtime for projects with tight deadlines.

Average salary and outlook

The average salary of a CNC machinist varies depending on geographic location, company, skills, experience, and work setting, such as a manufacturing or production facility. According to Indeed Salaries, the national average salary for a CNC machinist is $27.23 per hour. The career path of a CNC machinist looks vital for the next several years. According to the Government of Canada Job Bank, the availability of CNC machinist jobs over the next three years looks fair to good across the country.

Salary figures reflect data listed on Indeed Salaries at time of writing. Salaries‌ ‌may‌ ‌‌vary‌‌ ‌depending‌ ‌on‌ ‌the‌ ‌hiring‌ ‌organization‌ ‌and‌ ‌a‌ ‌candidate's‌ ‌experience,‌ ‌academic‌ background‌, ‌and‌ ‌location.‌

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organizations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

This article is based on information available at the time of writing, which may change at any time. Indeed does not guarantee that this information is always up-to-date. Please seek out a local resource for the latest on this topic.

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