A Day in the Life of a Machinist
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.
Paying Your Dues
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.
Present and Future
All complicated construction, engineering, and mass-production projects have required skilled machinists to make them possible. Robert Fulton’s steamboats and Henry Ford’s assembly line of automobiles would have been impossible without the help of skilled machinists. It is not an exaggeration to say that machinists were central to the industrial revolution. The foundations of the aerospace and aircraft industries hinge on the precision shaping of metals. One individual who influenced the development of machining tools is Henry Maudslay, who developed the lathe.
The future of machinists has both positive and negative aspects. More machinists are expected to be hired over the coming decade, as aircraft manufacturing orders are at an all-time high, automobile plants are operating at significant levels, and housing starts are rising. On the other hand, more and more traditionally metal-based parts of equipment are being replaced by parts made of plastics and fiberglass. Thus, precision machining of metal may gradually become precision pressing of plastics, and unfortunately, these two careers are quite different.
Quality of Life
PRESENT AND FUTURE
After two years, many machinists are still in apprenticeship programs, working as machine operators and handling tasks that require little expertise. Hours are long and pay is low, because beginning machinists spend a good deal of time in unpaid classroom settings or in partially salaried on-the-job training positions. Satisfaction is average. However, many machinists surveyed said the training programs teach new machinists a respect for their machines that contributes significantly to their quality of life as a machinist.
FIVE YEARS OUT
Five years into the profession, machinists are fully certified and are working in an area of specialization. Many are involved in their unions as professionals, having had extensive exposure to them while they were trainees. Machinists with ambition and interpersonal skills work additional shifts and begin to gain experience managing other employees. The shift to managerial work can be difficult for many machinists, since being a machinist and being a machinist manager require very different skills. Salaries increase. Additional hours are available for those who want them. Satisfaction is high.
TEN YEARS OUT
About 80 percent of those who are machinists for ten years are likely to remain machinists for life. Many become managers or shop heads at this time, and an aggressive few begin their own machinist company—although significant startup costs make this endeavor difficult. For most, salaries increase and hours stabilize.