What Does a Machinist Do?

Almost everything you see around you is created with the help of a machinist. It’s a career that requires great skill, precision, an eye for detail and a knack for problem-solving. Sound interesting to you? Imagine yourself doing this job.

As a machinist — also known as a computer numerical control (CNC) machinist or tool and die maker — you will operate manual and computer-controlled machine tools. You'll also set up and disassemble the machines. You’ll use this machinery and your skills to make a variety of products. That could mean large quantities of one machine part or one-of-a-kind metal items. We aren’t exaggerating when we say everything around you! Think titanium bone screws for orthopedic implants, car pistons, machine parts or specialty tools. All these items are made by machinists.

No matter what item is being created, the process of making it must be precise. That’s why a machinist's skills are so crucial. A machinist is responsible for translating an idea into reality. The idea starts with a sketch, blueprint or a computer-aided design (CAD) file, which is the design for a three-dimensional object. Based on that design, a CNC machinist programs the machine to cut and shape the material, usually metal, into the real thing. Some processes require lasers or water jets for precision cutting, and new processes emerge all the time.

As a machinist, you’ll master these processes, create the products, then polish and perfect them for quality assurance.

SkillPointe can show you what to expect, what you’ll earn, and give you tips from a pro who knows what it's like to do this job. If you’re a hard worker and want a hands-on job with great career opportunities, read on.

$ 34,600 - $ 72,200
$ 49,700
Apprentices learn how to run a computer control panel in a machine shop
Machinists are in demand in every community across the country because they work with the machines that make practically everything. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Job Responsibilities

  • Set up, operate and maintain precision equipment
  • Mill, turn, drill, shape and grind machine parts to specifications
  • Repair parts or create new ones
  • Consult with engineers and coworkers
  • Understand the properties of different metals 
  • Inspect and test finished products
  • Program mills, drills and lathes
  • Follow safety rules
  • Maintain production and quality logs
  • Plan stock inventory 

How To Become a Machinist: FAQs

What are the requirements for an entry-level machinist or a tool and die maker job?

You’ll need to have your high school diploma or equivalent. For a tool and die maker job, you may need additional qualifications. Courses in math, metalwork, blueprint reading and drafting will be useful. It’s helpful to have a driver's license.

Machinists, CNC machinists and tool and die makers often complete a trade school program, which takes around 24 months. There, they learn design and blueprint reading, math, drafting, metalworking, how to use welding and cutting tools, programming and working with CNC machines.

Much of a machinist's training is learned on the job. Some find an apprenticeship, which can last up to four years and will include the training just described. Other apprenticeships build on training received at a community college or technical school. These different training arrangements are one of the fastest routes to a skilled trade job that pays well.

How do I find a machinist apprenticeship?

You can find a machinist apprenticeship through an employer, such as a manufacturing company, or a union. You’ll learn on the job in a machine shop. Paid training and technical instruction can last several years. 

Is being a machinist a secure job?

It’s an industry that’s likely to see growth in the next few years, with plenty of job opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 7% growth between 2020 and 2030. That means about 47,500 openings per year, on average, for machinists and tool and die makers.

What about certifications?

Getting certified through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) can boost career opportunities and get you noticed by an employer.

Where do machinists work?

Machinists work in machine shops or factory tool rooms. Machinists can work in any manufacturing setting where installation, maintenance and programming of CNC machines is needed.

Machinist vs. tool and die maker: Is there a difference?

Tool and die makers make tools called dies, which are used to cut, shape and form metal. They specialize in making individual tools and dies and making them function perfectly. Machinists focus on the production-heavy machines, fitting and aligning.

Machinists and tool and die makers are often both trained to use the CNC machines or to write the programs needed to do the work. The job descriptions are less distinct than they used to be, when tool and die makers wore white aprons and machinists wore blue aprons. Experienced machinists will often become tool and die specialists. 

What will I gain from becoming a machinist or tool and die maker?

As a highly skilled machinist, you’ll be in demand. It’s not surprising that most of these jobs require overtime. As a machinist, you’ll hone your technical and mental skills every day. Each task will bring challenges and problems to solve, giving you a chance to develop your skill set.

This is a job that demands you try new approaches until you come up with a solution that works. When the dimensions of a part are wrong, this can spell disaster for a manufacturer. That’s where your skills come in. Machinists are often called upon to come up with ways to solve issues or get to the root of problems. You’ll find there are always opportunities to apply your creative thinking.

As a CNC machinist, you’ll troubleshoot to keep operations running smoothly. A desire to learn is the key to success. Being a machinist offers lots of variety — a good fit for anyone who enjoys a challenge.

As an apprentice your pay is tied to your skill level. As your experience and skills grow, so will your earnings. You might begin your training as a machine operator and take on more technical work as you learn. Machinists need computer experience to work with the CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) technology, CNC machine tools and the computerized measuring tools.

What skills and qualities would make someone a good fit for this job?

You may be likely to succeed in this line of work if you:

  • Are detail-oriented
  • Enjoy creating things
  • Are adaptable
  • Like working with computers
  • Have good physical stamina
  • Have good math skills
  • Are good with machinery
  • Manage your time well
  • Have excellent problem-solving skills
  • Work well with others
  • Are safety conscious
The bottom line:

As a job shop machinist, no two days are the same. Lots of machinists and tool and die makers work regular business hours. With some organizations working around the clock, you might need to work some evenings and weekends. A machinist’s hours can total more than 40 hours a week.

Machinist jobs involve all kinds of hands-on skills. You’ll get to know the technical programs needed to do your work, even show your completed products to customers and make necessary changes. There are other tasks you’ll do as part of your job, like maintaining production and quality logs, or planning inventory. You might be making parts for existing machinery or repairing them. When an industrial machine breaks down, a machinist is the person tasked with remanufacturing the broken part, using the original methods to make the replacement.

As a tool and die maker, you’ll create the fixtures that hold metal while it is bored, stamped, forged or drilled. You’ll also make gauges and other measuring tools – like metal molds used for diecasting and for molding everything, from plastics to ceramics. You’ll make and adjust parts, then test the completed tools and dies to make sure they are to spec. You’ll also condition the surfaces of tools and dies to finish them.

Working in a field that uses CNC machines will put you at the cutting edge of technology. In this trade, you’ll be using digital and mechanized tools in every step of machining. Developing your skills and working as part of a team are what it’s all about in this industry. As a CNC machinist, you’ll be working with every employee in the company, from your co-workers on the shop floor to the management team upstairs.

For many machinists, being relied upon to do good work, and getting support from others when you need it is what makes this job so enjoyable.

What's It Like To Be A Tool and Die Maker? [video]

What's It Like To Be A Tool and Die Maker? [video]

When Tony Tinge graduated from high school with honors, he knew he wanted to find a career, not just a job. Lincoln Electric provided a place for Tony to train as a tool and die maker through an apprenticeship.

“You can make an extremely good living as a tool and die maker," he says. "Plus, you get the satisfaction of helping create so many different things people use every day.”

Read Tony’s story and learn how he became a tool and die maker.




Machinist Training in Your Area

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North Arkansas College logo

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