Machinist Apprenticeship

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* Information retrieved from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

What Does a Machinist Do?

Machinists are highly skilled individuals who use machine tools, such as lathes, milling machines, and machining centers, to produce precision machined parts. Precision Machinists produce small batches or one-of-a-kind items. They use their knowledge of the working properties of materials and their skill with machine tools to plan and carry out the operation needed to make a variety of products that meet precise specifications.

Along with operating machines that use cutting tools to shape work pieces, Machinists also utilize machines that cut with lasers, water jets, or electrified wires. While some of the computer controls may be similar, Machinists must understand the unique cutting properties of these different machines. As engineers create new types of machine tools and new materials to machine, Machinists must constantly learn new machining properties and techniques.


Before they machine a part, Machinists must carefully plan and prepare the operation. These workers first review electronic or written blueprints or specifications for a job. Next, they calculate where to cut or bore into the workpiece (the piece of steel, aluminum, titanium, plastic, silicon or any other material that is being shaped), how fast to feed the workpiece into the machine, and how much material to remove. They then select tools and materials for the job, plan the sequence of cutting and finishing operations, and mark the workpiece to show where cuts should be made.

After this layout work is completed, Machinists perform the necessary machining operations. They position the workpiece on the machine tool, drill press, lathe, milling machine, or other type of machine, set the controls, and make the cuts. During the machining process, they must constantly monitor the feed rate and speed of the machine. Machinists also ensure that the workpiece is being properly lubricated and cooled, because the machining of metal products generates a significant amount of heat. The temperature of the workpiece is a key concern because most metals expand when heated; Machinists must adjust the size of their cuts relative to the temperature. Some rare but increasingly popular metals, such as titanium, are machined at extremely high temperatures.

Machinists detect some problems by listening for specific sounds: for example, a dull cutting tool or excessive vibration. Dull cutting tools are removed and replaced. Cutting speeds are adjusted to compensate for harmonic vibrations, which can decrease the accuracy of cuts, particularly on newer high-speed spindles and lathes. After the work is completed, Machinists use both simple and highly sophisticated measuring tools to check the accuracy of their work against blueprints.

Many modern machine tools are computer numerically controlled (CNC). CNC machines, following a computer program, control the cutting tool speed, change dull tools, and perform all of the necessary cuts to create a part. Frequently, Machinists work with computer control programmers to determine how the automated equipment will cut a part. The programmer may determine the path of the cut, while the Machinist determines the type of cutting tool, the speed of the cutting tool, and the feed rate.

Because most Machinists train in CNC programming, they may write basic programs themselves and often set offsets (modify programs) in response to problems encountered during test runs. After the production process is designed, relatively simple and repetitive operations normally are performed by machine setters, operators, and tenders. 

Some manufacturing techniques employ automated parts loaders, automatic tool changers, and computer controls, allowing machine tools to operate without anyone present. One production Machinist, working 8 hours a day, might monitor equipment, replace worn cutting tools, check the accuracy of parts being produced, adjust offsets, and perform other tasks on several CNC machines that operate 24 hours a day (lights-out manufacturing). During lights-out manufacturing, a factory may need only a few Machinists to monitor the entire factory.

Other Machinists do maintenance work repairing or making new parts for existing machinery. To repair a broken part, maintenance Machinists may refer to blueprints and perform the same machining operations that were needed to create the original part. Because the technology of machining is changing rapidly, Machinists must learn to operate a wide range of machines.

What Are the Working Conditions?

Today, most machine shops are relatively clean, well lit, and ventilated. Many computer-controlled machines are partially or totally enclosed, minimizing the exposure of workers to noise, debris, and the lubricants used to cool work pieces during machining. Nevertheless, working around machine tools presents certain dangers and workers must follow safety precautions. Machinists wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses to shield against bits of flying metal and earplugs to dampen machinery noise. They also must exercise caution when handling hazardous coolants and lubricants, although many common water-based lubricants present little hazard. The job requires stamina, because Machinists stand most of the day and, at times, may need to lift moderately heavy work pieces. Modern factories extensively employ autoloaders and overhead cranes, reducing heavy lifting.

Machinists work a 40-hour week. Evening and weekend shifts are becoming less common as companies justify investments in more expensive machinery to extend hours of operation. This trend is increasing the use of automation and lights-out manufacturing for less desirable shifts. Overtime is common during peak production periods.

Knowledge & Training

Machinists train in apprenticeship programs, informally on the job, and in technical colleges. Experience with machine tools is helpful. In fact, many entrants previously have worked as machine setters, operators, or tenders. Persons interested in becoming Machinists should be mechanically inclined, have good problem-solving abilities, be able to work independently, and be able to do highly accurate work (tolerances may reach 1/10,000th of an inch) that requires concentration and physical effort. High school or vocational school courses in mathematics (especially trigonometry), blueprint reading, metalworking, and drafting are highly recommended.

Apprenticeship programs consist of shop training and related classroom instruction lasting up to 4 years. In shop training, apprentices work almost full time, and are supervised by an experienced Machinist while learning to operate various machine tools. Classroom instruction includes math, physics, materials science, blueprint reading, mechanical drawing, and quality and safety practices. In addition, as machine shops have increased their use of computer-controlled equipment, training in the operation and programming of CNC machine tools has become essential. Apprenticeship classes are often taught in cooperation with local community or vocational colleges. A growing number of Machinists learn the trade through 2-year associate degree programs at community or technical colleges. Graduates of these programs still need significant on-the-job experience before they are fully qualified.

To boost the skill level of Machinists and to create a more uniform standard of competency, a number of training facilities and colleges are implementing curriculums that incorporate national skills standards developed by the National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS). After completing such a curriculum and passing a performance requirement and written exam, trainees are granted a NIMS credential, which provides formal recognition of competency in a metalworking field. Completing a recognized certification program provides a Machinist with better career opportunities.

What Does the Training Require?

What are the Application Requirements?

What Skills Should I Possess?

Additional Resources

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains information on all occupations. For more information on the Machinist trade in the United States, visit:

Sources: Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards Position Descriptions,
Apprenticeship in Wisconsin Handbook

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