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Listening In on Machinist Nation

Close up of a machinist working on a manufacturing machine.

There are nearly 500,000 machinists working in America today, and over the past two years we’ve wrote about issues affecting their livelihood. We’ve explored the benefits of working in smaller mom-and-pop job shops versus large production oriented shops as well as the career-critical decisions as to whether CNC skills or traditional manual skills were worth the focus of up-and-coming machinists.

In this piece, we turn a listening ear to the machinists who have commented on our articles posted to Aerotek’s Facebook page and share their voices and insights about the current state of Machinist Nation.

What’s in Your garage?

Many of the skilled trades contractors we know enjoy working on side projects outside of work. We wrote about machinists and this “makerspace” in March of 2017 and asked our Facebook friends a simple question: “What are you working on in your spare time?”

The most popular comment came from Chuck C., a self-professed ”old-timer” ex-machinist that writes, “…In a former life I made parts for the F14, F15, F16, F18, F22, NATO joint strike fighter, C130, Harrier jump jet, laser guided smart bombs, and a slew of commercial applications like heavy equipment. Now I'm a jack of all trades, tinkering with cars (mainly to keep them going) and helping out others who can't afford to get theirs fixed.”

Jose Q. shared, “As a shop owner and a tool and die maker, l love the trade. In my spare time l make parts for three different inventor's projects. The inventors keep me thinking.”

While we were inspired by Todd A.’s response, saying, “If I have any spare time, it’s spent improving our work processes or improving our work environment. Spare time does not often happen with an involved machinist,” and we admit to being utterly humbled by Jason B.’s short declaration of professional love, posting, “I'd just like to be working as a machinist. Let alone doing work in my spare time. LOL!”

The great debate

There’s perhaps no other more burning issue among machinists of all ages and types than the question of when — or whether — machinists should learn and become proficient on CNC (computer numeric controlled) machining versus getting and perfecting their manual machining chops. The debate we found is robust and here’s a fairly representative sampling of the pointed and passionate discussion.

Crawl Before You Run

Perhaps the best argument for manual skills in the mix is the suggestion that to become a great CNC machinist a tradesperson should first get hands-on manual experience. Rick C. says, “In my apprenticeship I learned how to run everything manually before I was allowed to even think of going on the CNC. I'm glad I learned this way it has helped me immensely with set up and programming and running CNC machines I think everyone should learn this way.”

Jason B. agrees, and adds an all-important point about the role of teachers in the mix of tools and technology. “Yes absolutely in my youthful opinion. The people that trained me during my apprenticeship made sure I did manual work and setups on manual machines for a long time before even doing much familiarization with CNC work. I see a huge benefit now that I didn't understand or recognize then.”

Gaz K., one of the growing minorities of machinists on the “CNC” side of the debate, offered his personal journey story as evidence. “I never learned manuals! I started as a laborer and stuck with a CNC guy, who let me set-up, operate. Then I started writing some programs and now I run the whole CNC milling section. Manuals are dying out, and CNC can do anything a manual can, plus more — and they’re quicker simpler and more accurate. So, no need for learning manual in my opinion.”

Two commenters viewed the debate through a management lens, with Floyd C. writing, “I started as a CNC guy. Now I am small business owner and completely manual...” and the pointed position voiced by Andrew S. who wrote, “Always, without exception: I won't hire a CNC ‘machinist’ who is clueless on manuals.”

Feel of the Machine

Until the advent of CNC, machining was an intensive hand craft. One theme we found in the debate around CNC vs. manual was the suggestion that every machinist needed to acquire an essential and even intimate “feel of the machine.” Aaron C. puts it succinctly, posting, “[New machinists] should learn on manual machines first, get the basics down for machine theory and whatnot. Transition to CNC is fast. Not having the feel of the manual seems to be the biggest challenge.”

Kirk L. agrees, posting, “Absolutely, a machinist should have a feel for RPM and feed rates. There are far too many variables between machine, tooling and materials for the book to say, (this is how to run it). This is especially so for programmers.”Mark M. adds, “Yes they should — what you learn about feeds and speeds and tool pressure you cannot learn on a CNC. An experienced machinist can tell from sounds from across the shop if a machine is not cutting properly or if a tool is about to fail.”

Kevin B. pointed out it isn’t just about feel, it’s about sight as well, commenting, “On a manual machine it's right in front of you. With most CNCs, the doors are closed and coolant covers up what is happening.”

Although in a decided minority, Greg K. was uniquely compelling in his contrary if thoughtful analysis, writing, “I'd like to say yes, manual is a must, first, since it’s how I learned. But I'm leaning towards no. Modern CNCs and cutting tools have so little in common with manual machines and the tooling they use that I see little benefit. I see some CNC operators who started out on manual machines, or even CNCs in the 1980 and 90s, who are so stuck in their ways that they fight new technology tooth and nail. They are scared because what they are being asked to do was impossible in the past. But to a 20-year-old who doesn't know any different, who's never cranked a handle, it's not. They don't know what they don't know. They are not hobbled with the knowledge of what was previously impossible.”

Big vs. little shops

No other issue raises as much passionate debate as the CNC vs. manual debate than the question of what’s the most ideal work environment — small shop or big.

Although a general consensus is never a sure thing when it comes to the agreeably strong-willed and opinionated machinist nation, but many of those who commented agree that it’s not a bad idea to start your career at a smaller ”job shop” to learn your skills before moving on or up to larger, production shop. Here’s a sampling of the discussion we mined from our article exploring machinist preference for mom-and-pop versus larger shops.

Brent K.’s advice was fairly typical, when he urged up-and-coming machinist to, “…find a smaller shop that runs smaller lot jobs where you have to setup unproven programs then run out each job yourself before tearing down and setting up your next job. Get them to start you on three-axis, 1-5 tool jobs and work your way up in difficulty over time. [This] worked well for me starting out.”

Ian W.’s thinking was more expansive as he found the time to shout-out both Aerotek and his own availability, posting, “I like working for both big and smaller companies. Aerotek helped me land a few jobs when I was starting out in my CNC journey. If you need a machinist and or operator in the Phoenix, Arizona area feel free to give me a call and let’s see if I’m a good fit for your company/position.”

Brian I.’s advice combined his thinking about the CNC vs. manual debate along with the small vs. big shop question, posting, “My two cents is that you'll gain far more experience in small shops with CNC and manual equipment. I agree with the comment about learning to setup and run small jobs and prove out programs. The upside to working for big companies is better pay and benefits that mom-and-pop places usually can't compete with. I'd recommend getting your experience first. I left a tool maker job to go run production for a big company. Not learned a thing since I've been there and a lot of the folks there can only run one or two machines and would be in a world of hurt if there was a layoff they couldn't hack it in a real job shop.”

We liked James M.’s advice, grounded in a truth that informs every profession, about being ready to learn something everywhere. “There are plusses and minuses to every situation. I've worked in three-man shops up to 30,000+ multinational corporations. Each one had its own character and I learned something everywhere I went. The key is to learn whatever you can, wherever you can — in the long run you'll be the better for it.”

Over the past few years of developing and sharing stories about our contractors, we’ve noticed something interesting about machinists, which is their ready inclination to post and share their experiences with the online community. Many of these shared stories touch us deeply, and we’re inspired by them daily as we seek to bring these skilled professionals together with the companies that, literally, couldn’t run without them.

If you’re a machinist looking for your next opportunity, we’d love to be part of your next career move. Check out our current openings and create your Aerotek career account so we know what you are looking for out of a rewarding career machining.