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Working as a machinist

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The word 'machinist' has a 20th-century ring, evoking images of the kind of industrial labor people did a generation ago. And it's true the trade was in its heyday in the mid- to late 20th century, when American manufacturing was at its peak. But even though the number of machinists has declined since then, the occupation is still very much alive and is evolving rapidly to embrace 21st century technology. Being a machinist today often requires not only mechanical aptitude and a steady arm but computer skills. And although employment in the field is declining, opportunities for qualified machinists are available.

What they do:
Machinists make machine parts out of metal, plastic and other materials. Working from blueprints, they decide how to cut the metal or other material (called the workpiece, in industry lingo), and they choose the tools -- such as lathes, grinders, drill presses and millers -- to perform the job.

At all times, they need to carefully monitor the speed of the workpiece as it's fed through the cutting tool, and ensure that it doesn't get too hot, which could warp the metal or cause temperatures in the room to rise to dangerous levels. (The heat, flying sparks and potentially dangerous equipment of a machine shop were put to frightening effect in the 2004 Hollywood thriller "The Machinist.")

But the image of sweaty, grease-covered machinists grappling with huge sheets of metal is becoming outdated. Machinists these days often work with tools operated by computer numerical control, or CNC. Instead of a machinist maneuvering cranks and gears to the correct positions, CNC tools can establish the correct settings by computer.

This system has obvious advantages in terms of precision, repeatability and reducing worker error. Machinists who work with CNC tools must be in continuous communication with the programmers and in some cases write basic programs themselves when adjustments need to be made.

What they need:
Machinists typically need a high school education with a strong foundation in math, followed by a training period that takes place on the job, through an apprenticeship or at a vocational or technical school.

What they earn:
According to, machinists nationally earn an average $55,905, with the 25th percentile at $43,238 and the 75th percentile at $69,715.

Job outlook:
Due to stiff foreign competition and advancing technology that allows manufacturing companies to hire fewer workers, employment for machinists is projected to decline by 5 percent between 2008 and 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the agency also reports that job prospects will be good for those who do seek machinist jobs. That's because the work requires more training than in the past, and fewer of these skilled workers are choosing to work as machinists. At the same time, new machinists with advanced skills will be needed to fill the places of retiring workers.

The BLS also notes that while the job outlook is good, machinist employment is affected by economic cycles. On this front, some hopeful news: the Obama administration claims that the American manufacturing industry is on the rebound after a tough stint during the recession, and has created 3.7 million new jobs over the last two years.

Last Updated: 04/04/2012 - 6:02 PM

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