Machinist’s Choice – Mom & Pop vs. Big Company Shop

Machinist drafting on a table that has tools strewn across it
Every machinist has their favorite tools and technologies they love to work with. Most also have a strong preference about the type and size of companies for which they’ll work. Some prefer the smaller ‘mom and pop’ businesses where they enjoy the opportunity to work on a variety of projects and products. Others gravitate towards the bigger companies where they can specialize in one particular thing, and get very good at it. We explore what makes a machinist choose one type of work over another and the different natures of their job and career satisfaction.

Job vs. production shop
As we listened to the rich and varied conversation among machinists across online forums, a common theme emerged: When you’re first starting out as a young machinist, it can be very helpful to work at a smaller ‘job shop’ over a strictly ‘production shop’, since it’s a better bet for learning more diverse skills and techniques. This piece of advice from a conversation on the popular subreddit r/Machinist sums it up nicely, “I've worked at a 15 man shop and a 200 man shop. At the larger shop we made our own product … over and over. The smaller shop I work at now is a job shop. Job shop work is tough stuff but you will really hone your skills in that type of environment whether it's a big or small shop. Just make sure they are doing challenging work...”

Growing pains
We found and followed another interesting thread on The Practical Machinist forum where one son from a small family-owned machining shop was seeking advice about how to manage growing from a small shop to a bigger shop. His original post detailed the challenges of rethinking the way the small shop did everything from recruiting and training to quality assurance and work process documentation. For any machinist thinking of starting out on their own, joining a family-owned shop or throwing in with a shop in the throes of growth, it’s an insightful read. Our key takeaway is that, like any small business, machinist shops going through accelerated growth present both challenges and opportunities for the machinists who work there.

Specialization, risk and skills building in the new economy
From another subreddit we tapped into a conversation sparked by one machinist operator in a large manufacturing company who was outsourcing its main product and seriously downsizing its workforce. The machinist received a job offer from a small startup company to become the lone CNC programmer, and was seeking advice from his peers about making a potentially risky, decisive career move. The majority of forum members urged him to take the leap, even into the uncertainty of a startup business. One sage poster’s advice best summed up the mix of factors weighing the most heavily on a young professional in almost any trade planning their next best career move — “Get wild experience now. Be the one guy the shop relies on, learn everything about programming, tool sourcing, different operations, working with designers and assembly staff to make better parts. ... This kind of experience will take you far in life, if it works out.”

Whether it’s about career advancement, perfecting new skills, job satisfaction or salary requirements we sense a key takeaway from our listening tour of machinist forums — the machinist trade is evolving very rapidly as it adapts to market demands, emergent technologies and entrepreneurial opportunities. If you’re a machinist encountering any of these challenges and opportunities, we’d love to hear from you.