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Great Debate: Should CNC Machinists Be Trained on Manual Machines Too?

Worker in uniform operating cnc machine in a workshop
These days, more and more machinists are building careers working exclusively on CNC machines. They know their G-Code and CAD/CAM software cold, but how important is it for them to build skills on manual machines like lathes, milling machines and drill presses? In a world increasingly dominated by CNC machines, is there any reason for CNC machinists to be trained on manual machining as well? We checked in with Aerotek recruiters and machinists in online forums to get a read on how this great debate between machinists was netting out.

The case for both

There’s a growing sense among younger machinists entering the trade that they’ll increase their earnings potential by having strong CNC skills. Increasingly, many feel that manual machinists who put off embracing CNC might be handicapping their chances for future job opportunities. But our recruiters tell us that manual machinists will likely always have a place in the trade, even if in diminishing numbers. We found a telling comment from a Reddit contributor in a conversation debating auto restoration issues, which sums up the situation well, “It's a lot like CNC and manual machining. A manual machinist can easily adapt and learn a CNC machine, but a CNC machinist can't easily adapt and learn to use a manual machine.” Although some would argue this point, it does suggest that there will always be a demand for machinists who are adept, if not expert, in both. In the words of one respondent to this ‘What Do You Do for a Living’ thread, “[I‘m] every engineers hero – a CNC and manual machinist.”

The future is automated-ish…

There’s little argument that computer-based machining tools are where the growth lies for machinists, given the technology’s speed and accuracy advantages over manual machining. CNC offers the advantage of automating processes, repeatability, precision and mass production. There’s no hiding why it would be popular. Still, many believe that a CNC machine is just another tool, and that a good machinist should be able to use every tool at his disposal, including CNC and traditional. For many companies, having machinists with manual training, even in an increasingly automated world, has its advantages. When technology fails, multi-skilled machinists can revert to manual tools and techniques, and valuable production time is not sacrificed.

Learning to drive vs. learning to machine

Some machinists cite the “learning to drive” model when recommending whether to first learn manual or CNC machining, if you plan on adding both skills to your career arsenal. As any of us who drive both can attest, if you learned to drive on an automatic transmission it’s tough going back and learning how to drive again with a manual transmission. But if you learned on a manual, it’s a breeze adapting to driving an automatic. Thus, old-school machinists are likely to recommend “manual first”, while the emerging class of computer-trained machinists feel CNC should be the first learned. When we polled our Aerotek recruiters specializing in placing machinists, we found some good news for everyone: it’s both.

The triple threat solution

According to collegegrad.com, employment of machinists is projected to grow 10 percent from 2014 to 2024 – that’s faster than the average for all occupations. Aerotek recruiters report that, although the demand for CNC specialists continues to grow, many clients use both manual and computerized machining tools. While machinists adept at both are in demand, our recruiters tell us that the future belongs to the opportunistic machinist who becomes a true, triple threat – those who are able to combine CNC, manual and a flexible sense of creativity into one highly skilled package.

Good tools are everything

One thing all great machinists agree on is the value of good tools. Whether you’re just starting out or have been clocking in for years, whether you’re all about manual, or a whiz in CAD/CAM, or a skilled triple threat, Aerotek offers you the tools you need to get where you want to go in your career. Set up a free career account and check our current machinist openings.