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The Machinists Behind the Machines That Make Everything

Engineers planning CNC machinery

When it comes to understanding the world of machinists, Dylan Ballantine, Aerotek skilled trades practice lead in Minnesota, knows his stuff. Speaking with him recently about these unique professionals, we felt sure must have been one himself.

“No, not me. But my grandfather was a machinist, and I grew up close to him. He was from a lost generation of machinists, the tradesmen who went on the road, following the work. That was when the machines of the trade were purely manual — old school drill presses, lathes, milling machines. The tools of the machinist have changed a lot.”

To explore how much the world of machining has changed from a first-hand perspective, we spoke with one of our own veteran machinists who’s been a part of this transition age of machining from the manual to the high-tech.

Old school, meet new school

Chris Kennedy is an Aerotek machinist contractor who’s lived in eleven states over the course of his career and proudly says, “It’s been a gypsy life. I wouldn’t change it for the world.” Like many of the veteran machinists we work with, Chris found his calling early.

“I was thirteen when I decided to rebuild my first car engine. My older brother was shocked and I remember telling him, ‘hey — it’s just nuts and bolts’”. I realized then I was a natural mechanic. I also was a bit of a math whiz, which comes in handy as a machinist. Early on I taught myself how to use a micrometer from an old encyclopedia, years before the internet. My mom was a big influence, since she was an architect and city planner and I grew up reading blue prints.”

We asked Dylan if skilled tradespeople like Chris are typical or rare these days. “The supply of experienced and gifted guys like Chris is dwindling fast. His generation honed their skills in the manual arts of machining. Increasingly the old school manual machines are being replaced by high tech machines. The new breed of machinist is more likely to have gotten their start developing websites and apps than working on cars.”

The machines behind the machines

One of the things that drew Chis to the trade was an epiphany early in his career. “I remember realizing that a machinist eventually touches everything. Look around you. Everything you can see was either machined by a machinist or created by a machine that was machined by a machinist. Our work is everywhere; I’ve always thought that’s pretty cool.”

Dylan agrees. “Yes, and it’s also true for machine shops that are moving towards a mostly robotics environment, where the machine is programmed by a technician to makes those parts. At the earliest stage in the process of machining, there’s always a human being behind the machine.”

Talents wanted: mechanical vs spatial

We asked Dylan whether he felt someday it would be all about the technology in the evolving world of machining.

“There are two very specific types of talents required in machining. The people who specialize in the manual machines are mechanical wizards. It’s how they think and work. Then there’s the emerging generation of machinists skilled at CNC machining and CAD software, who often have a very strong sense of spatial intelligence. They have a talent for imagining how the end-part will eventually look, in their head before it’s made. When you match that skill with advanced computer proficiency, you become worth a lot in today’s market place for skilled machinists.”

We were curious to learn more about Dylan’s insight about machinists and spatial intelligence. “They can visualize things in a way many of us can’t. It’s a skill they share with mechanical and software engineers. And video game developers. I met a young man last week who got his start as a video game programmer in his mid-twenties here in Minnesota. When he was planning his career, he considered heading to California to try to make it as a developer in the gaming industry. Instead, he got his two-year degree in machining and within a few weeks of graduating landed a great job right here in Minnesota.”

Manual is forever

Dylan told us that manual machinists with the accumulated credentials of a specialist like Chris are,” disappearing daily”. He notes that even as this talent pool retires, they remain in high demand by many industries.

“Even with more and more shops moving towards high-tech, clean and lean operations dominated by computer-driven machines, there will always be the jobs that require a manual machinist working a manual machine. Maybe it’s just a single part that needs a recalibration or a specialty part — it’s faster and less expensive to do that manually, then to write an entire new program and do it on a CNC machine.”

“I sometimes think of these old-school arts as the grinding and greasy side of the business. These machinists are true fabricators, they’re builders. If you ever seen that show — ‘How It’s Made’ — that’s what these guys do, that’s how they think.”

Chris agrees. “Yeah, I still remember the day early in my career when I finished a job and thought, ‘I can make that part!’”

Schools and skills

In any line of work, the training and education choices we make are key to building a rewarding career. We asked Chris about his approach to skills acquisition across his long career. “In my early days, I was a half credit shy of getting my apprenticeship, when I heard about an opportunity in Bismarck, North Dakota working in a tool and die shop. I picked up and moved from Louisville to Bismarck and never regretted it. I’m one of those people who picks up skills by doing. Almost everything I did on the job in my early career was work I’d never done before. That’s how I learn, by doing.”

When it comes to formal education for machinists, Dylan offered some insight. “Much like the game developer-turned-machinist I spoke about, a lot of people are realizing the potential for a rich career in machining. Maybe it’s someone who considers becoming an engineer but isn’t up for pursuing a four-year degree. Or it’s someone who has this natural gift of spatial intelligence and realize that with a two-year technical degree in machining, they can make more than someone who comes out with a four-year degree in business. As the machines of the machining trade become more sophisticated, the compensation levels are becoming competitive with more advanced technical jobs.”

If you’re a skilled machinist — or someone who thinks like one — we’d love to help you find your next career opportunity. Take a look at our current machinist openings or update your free Aerotek career account today.