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CNC Machinist vs CNC Operator [Pay, Experience, Role]



John Abraham
Hey I'm John. I write about Manufacturing, Metalworking, CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com


CNC machinist vs CNC operator

If you are looking for a career in a CNC environment, you must have come across profiles such as CNC operator and CNC machinist.

What exactly is the difference between the two and which role should you aim for?

This article describes the difference between a CNC operator and a CNC machinist in terms of the job description, qualifications required, and average salary.

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CNC Machinist vs CNC Operator: Explained

CNC OperatorCNC Machinist
QualificationBasic understanding of CNCHigh school diploma or Engineering graduate
ExperienceEntry-level roleMid-senior role (4-5 years experience)
Avg. Salary~$46,000~$50,000
DutiesExecute and monitor the processPlan, prepare, schedule, and improve the process

Difference between CNC machinist and CNC operator

The primary difference between a CNC machinist and a CNC operator lies in their responsibilities. While CNC operator is an entry level role that mainly concerns the execution and monitoring of the process, CNC machinist is responsible for identifying the optimal parameters and setting up the CNC machine accordingly.

Both CNC machinists and CNC operators handle the shop floor activities of a CNC workshop.

They are responsible for planning the process, setting up the machine, ensuring safe execution of the machining operation, and maintenance of the machine.

Although these roles seem similar, there are some differences that set them apart.

Qualification Difference


Being a CNC operator does not necessarily require any specific educational qualifications, but requires the individual to undergo training and understand the basic operations of a CNC machine.

To be a CNC machinist you need a high school diploma and should do specific courses to develop skills such as reading and understanding the blueprints.

It must be noted that the qualification requirements vary from one organization to another, hence some organizations prefer an engineering graduate for the role of CNC machinist.

Experience Difference

CNC operator is an entry-level role that generally does not require prior experience.

However, certain organizations require the individual to familiarize himself with the machine by joining in as an assistant to a skilled operator.

This experience helps the operator to learn the basic functionality of a CNC machine before actually handling the whole process.

On the other hand, a CNC machinist generally has around 4-5 years of experience as a CNC operator.

Apart from gaining experience, you can also become a CNC machinist by pursuing a degree in a relevant field and gaining on-field experience as an intern.

Duties and Responsibilities

Duties and responsibilities are important factors that differentiate a CNC machinist from an operator.

A CNC operator is often referred to as a “button operator”. However, the role goes beyond just pressing the start and stop buttons of the CNC machine.

A typical job description of a CNC operator includes responsibilities such as:

  • Loading and unloading the workpiece.
  • Ensuring optimal parameters are set, before executing the process.
  • Monitoring the process to detect any abnormalities and prevent accidents.
  • Visual inspection of the product after completing the machining operation.
  • Daily cleaning and maintenance of the CNC machine.
  • Occasional tweaking of the process, after getting confirmation from the machinist.

On the other hand, a CNC machinist is a more experienced individual who supervises the work of operators.

A machinist should have knowledge about all the duties performed by an operator, with additional knowledge about machining different materials.

The duties and responsibilities of a machinist include, but are not limited to:

  • Interpreting blueprints and planning the machining operation.
  • Training the operators to perform that operation and supervising their work.
  • Identifying the optimal machining parameters for a process.
  • Selecting the appropriate cutting tools required for a process.
  • Time management to ensure timely delivery and avoid unexpected breakdowns.
  • Inspecting the quality of the output.

Salary Difference


With experience and responsibilities comes a better salary.

It must be noted that the salary for a particular role varies from one country to another and from one organization to another.

According to May 2021 reports of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wages of a CNC operator are around $22.23, which adds up to an average annual wage of around $46,240.

Whereas the average annual wages of a CNC machinist vary from $47,000 to $50,000.

Roles in a CNC Workshop

A lot of people mistake modern Computer numerical control (CNC) workshops for automatic manufacturing units where computers run everything without workers.

Despite being automated, CNC workshops require workers for various operations.

However, the role of a worker has been upgraded to that of a technician.

There are generally three main roles in a CNC workshop: CNC operator, CNC machinist, and CNC programmer.

CNC Operator

CNC operator is an entry-level role that includes but is not limited to, responsibilities like loading the material, ensuring that optimal parameters are set, executing the process, etc.

Operators need not be expert machinists, but they should be familiar with the machine that they are operating.

They are also responsible for monitoring the process and reporting any errors or abnormalities.

Apart from this, a CNC operator is also required to have knowledge about the maintenance of the machine to do daily or weekly preventive maintenance.

CNC Machinist

A CNC machinist is often confused with a CNC operator because both have a similar role, i.e., to ensure the proper operation of CNC machines.

However, a CNC machinist is an experienced individual with good knowledge about machining of different materials and operation of the machine.

CNC machinist is responsible for tasks such as planning the machining operation, setting the optimal parameters for a machining process, selecting the appropriate cutting tool, etc.

CNC Programmer

A CNC programmer is mostly away from the shop floor but plays an important role in executing a CNC machining operation.

While the role varies from one organization to another, the basic duty of a programmer is to program the CNC machine to perform the desired operation.

But the question arises, is it difficult to learn CNC programming?

Computer numerical control (CNC) machines are controlled by G-code programs.

These programs can be either manually written or automatically generated by using CAM software, which makes it easy to program a CNC machine.

A CNC programmer is responsible for understanding the blueprint and programming the machine to execute the desired cut with high precision and tight tolerance.

The programmer is also responsible to set optimal machining parameters, as decided by the machinist.

Some organizations opt for a highly skilled individual who can perform the role of a machinist, as well as a programmer and is known as a CNC machinist programmer.

How to Become a CNC Machinist: Roadmap

Being a CNC machinist requires a skillful individual with knowledge about various machining operations and about tools used for performing those operations.

A CNC machinist should have adequate hands-on experience with CNC machining operations to set up, operate, and perform minor repairs.

Apart from that, certain certifications and courses can also highlight your profile as a worthy candidate for the role of CNC machinist.

Acquire the Skills Required to be a CNC Machinist

CNC machines are complex tools that require various mathematical, analytical, and problem-solving skills to operate.

Therefore, a CNC machinist should be a versatile individual with skills from various disciplines.

Instrumentation and Measurement

CNC machining involves measurements and calculations of dimensions and optimal parameters.

Therefore, a CNC machinist should have excellent math skills and must be well familiar with various measuring instruments and devices, such as calipers and micrometers.

Apart from that, a CNC machinist must also have good knowledge of CAD/CAM operations to understand the working of a CNC machine.

Technical Writing and Communication

A CNC machinist is responsible for training the operators for performing a machining operation and therefore must have good writing skills to prepare a comprehensive guide of the operation.

Apart from writing skills, a machinist must also have good communication skills to brief the CNC operators about the plan, procedure, and safety of a machining process.

A CNC machinist must also have technical skills to read and understand the blueprints and part designs.

Problem Solving

Machining operations are prone to errors and breakdowns, hence a CNC machinist must have problem-solving skills to tackle such situations and produce quality results.

A CNC machinist must also be familiar with the maintenance and repair procedure of a CNC machine to reduce the breakdown time and ensure timely delivery of the output.


Apart from solving problems, a CNC machinist must have managerial skills to manage time, work, material, and CNC operators.

A CNC machinist is also responsible for scheduling the machining process, thereby ensuring a smooth flow from one machining process to another.

Safety and Solutions

CNC machining can be extremely dangerous when performed without following proper safety guidelines.

A CNC machinist is responsible for the safety of a machining operation, and therefore must be well versed with safety protocols to avoid any accidents.

Gain Experience

Apart from being a skillful individual, a CNC machinist should also have hands-on experience with CNC machines.

CNC machinist is considered a mid-senior role in a CNC environment, who is responsible for supervising the work of CNC operators and preparing the initial plan for a machining process.

Therefore, you can become a CNC machinist after gaining around 4-5 years of experience as a CNC operator.

This experience helps you to understand the working of various CNC machines and hones your skills to be an excellent CNC machinist.

However, you can also undertake certain courses and certifications to enhance your knowledge and boost your journey to be a CNC machinist.



Apart from experience, a quicker way to advance in a CNC environment is to undergo certain courses and certifications that help you develop the necessary skills to be a CNC machinist.

Generally, these courses not only provide theoretical knowledge but also provide practical experience in the form of internships.

Some of the popular organizations that offer CNC machinist courses are:

How to Become a CNC Programmer: Roadmap

CNC programmer, when compared to a CNC machinist, is a higher level role and is responsible for programming CNC machines to perform the desired machining operation.

Unlike CNC machinists, a CNC programmer is not concerned with the shop floor activities and is responsible for handling the computer control aspect, i.e., CNC programming.

Therefore, a CNC programmer must have excellent CAD/CAM skills with a good understanding of various G-codes, M-codes, and N-codes used in programming a CNC.

A CNC programmer must be well versed with various CAM software such as CamBamMeshCAMEstlCAM, DeskProto, etc.

Apart from that, a programmer must be familiar with the working of various CNC machines like CNC lathe, CNC mill, CNC routers, CNC laser cutter, etc., and their axis system.

As the number of axes of a CNC machine increases, the complexity of programming the machine also increases.

Therefore, programming a 6-axis CNC machine requires a highly skilled CNC programmer with a good understanding of the axes system.

Generally, a CNC programmer must be an engineering graduate with good knowledge of CAD/CAM and different machining operations.

Apart from skills and education, it is important to have hands-on experience with CNC machines, and generally, an experienced CNC machinist is ideal for the role of CNC programmer, provided he develops the required skills.

You can also undergo special training and certifications to boost your skills and highlight your profile for the role of CNC programmer.

With the advancement in technology and the ever-increasing popularity of CNC machines, CNC programmer is one of the most sought-after roles in a CNC environment.

According to the May 2021 report of the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): Texas, followed by California and Michigan rank highest in hiring CNC tool programmers, with an average annual salary of around $62,000.

Workflow in a CNC Machining Process

Workflow in a CNC environment
Workflow in a CNC environment

The basic workflow in a CNC machining process is centered around three main roles: CNC operator, CNC machinist, and CNC programmer.

However, there are various levels of these roles such as senior operator, junior operator, senior machinist, junior machinist, etc.

On receiving a project, the CNC machinist analyzes the requirement and prepares a plan.

The role of the machinist is to select the appropriate machining operations, identify optimal parameters and convey them to the CNC programmer.

After that, the CNC programmer programs the CNC machines to perform the desired operations as per the specifications provided by the machinist, and begins the test runs.

During test runs, the machinist and programmer work in coordination to tweak and tune the settings until the desired quality is achieved.

After finalizing the process, the machinist briefs the CNC operators about the machining operations, quality requirements, and safety guidelines.

The CNC operators then execute the process accordingly and produce the product.

Final Thoughts

A CNC operator is an entry-level role where the individual prepares, executes, and monitors machining operations, whereas a CNC machinist is a mid-senior role responsible for supervising the work of operators.

The growth of an individual in a CNC environment is dependent upon his skills, experience, and certifications.

Although certifications are not necessarily required to be a CNC machinist, they will help gain the required skills and knowledge to boost your career.

With good programming knowledge and CAD/CAM skills, you can also advance to the role of CNC programmer.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Which state in the United States has the highest employment level for CNC tool operators?

According to the May 2021 report of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS): Wisconsin, followed by California and Pennsylvania has the highest employment level for CNC tool operators.

Is CNC machinist also a programmer?

No, CNC machinist does not necessarily have to be a programmer. However, some organizations require a CNC machinist programmer, who is a highly skilled individual capable of handling the duties of a machinist, as well as a programmer.

Is it challenging to work in a CNC environment?

Yes, working in a CNC environment can be challenging, as it requires special skills and attention to detail. Furthermore, working with powerful machines can be dangerous, and therefore, it is important to ensure that safety protocols are being followed all the time. However, with proper skills and experience, the challenging experience can be transformed into an exciting job role.

John Abraham
Hey I'm John. I write about Manufacturing, Metalworking, CNCs and Lasers at Mellowpine. If you have any questions related to CNCs or Lasers, I'd be happy to answer them. Reach me at mail@mellowpine.com