Machinists use metalworking equipment, such as lathes, shapers, grinders and saws, to form either unique and carefully shaped individual pieces, or multiple pieces of specifically tailored metal. Machinists work for large concerns that use metal in their final products, such as heating-vent manufacturers or automobile factories, or they work for specialty shops that take specific orders for needed parts and equipment. Machinists must be able to read blueprints and be familiar with laser and optical measuring devices that can test the degree of precision of their work. Some specifications call for shaping a piece of metal to within one-one-thousandth-of-an-inch accuracy. Machine shops usually employ between four and fifteen machinists, so those who work in this part of the industry should be comfortable working in close quarters. Machinists often know more about the metals they work with than do the clients who order pieces made from these metals. The machinist can and does act as an advisor, if the client makes false or misleading assumptions about the materials being used or the finished product.
Quality machinists have good vision, endurance, an eye for detail, excellent hand-eye coordination, a love for quality and precision, and respect for the tools of their trade. Working with metals can be dangerous for someone who is careless or easily distracted. Indeed, the biggest concern with being a machinist is the daily threat of serious injury. Few professions place employees in such regular contact with high-powered and potentially destructive tools. Surprisingly, however, the average injury rate in this profession is only slightly above the national average. Machinists must wear protective safety goggles and earplugs, and they must carefully decontaminate themselves after working with high-viscosity lubricants, as many of these lubricants are quite toxic. These worries, however, only slightly diminish the satisfaction machinists derive from shaping something out of nothing in an expert and craftsman-like way every day.
There are no specific educational requirements for the profession of machinist, but many employers prefer to hire individuals with a high school diploma (or its equivalent) and some work experience that demonstrates responsibility. Coursework that employers value includes mathematics, machine shop, and computer science. Employers also take a favorable view of blueprint-reading skills. The large majority of entrants to the profession are funneled through apprenticeship programs sponsored by unions in a specific area of machinist work, such as automotive machinistry, or agricultural machinistry. These apprenticeships are hard work, with many taking more than four years to complete. Programs generally combine shop work (6,000+ hours) with class work (700+ hours), with an emphasis on practical results. Those who successfully complete these programs are eligible for union machinist positions. To enter an apprenticeship program, many unions require that candidates be sponsored by a union member. Contact the appropriate union in your field of interest for more information.
Most individuals who choose a career as a machinist remain machinists, as few careers combine the precise detail work with the strenuous physical activity. Other professions with similar characteristics that machinists migrate to include carpentry, construction, and automobile manufacturing. Some machinists who have progressed to managerial status transfer to other personnel-management occupations, but this is more the exception than the rule.