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Is CNC Programming a Good Career? (What I Wish I Knew!)



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


Programming a CNC machine

Is CNC programming a good career? What are the roles and responsibilities? What kind of pay can you expect? And how do you become a CNC programmer?

This article discusses the key things you need to know before getting into a career in CNC programming.

In the end, I’ve also discussed the difference between a CNC machinist and a CNC programmer to help you understand which role is best suitable for you.

MellowPine is reader-supported. When you buy through links on my site, I may earn an affiliate commission at no extra cost to you.

CNC Programming Career- Is it the right choice for you?

CNC programming is an excellent career for individuals who enjoy working with manufacturing tools and computers. To be a successful CNC programmer, you need specific skills which can be developed through experience or specialized courses. A CNC programmer must also be familiar with different types of CNC software.

Role and Responsibilities of a CNC Programmer


The roles and responsibilities of a CNC programmer include, but are not limited to:

  • Reading and understanding project blueprints.
  • Optimizing the machining process to produce the desired product efficiently.
  • Designing the program to execute the desired machining operation.
  • Loading the program on the machine control unit (MCU) and setting up the CNC machine.
  • Modifying the program to match the required specifications perfectly.

CNC machines are complex tools that consist of various elements such as a CNC controller, a CNC shieldstepper motor drivers, and a drive system generally operated by stepper motors.

All these elements work in coordination to perform the desired operation based on the program loaded in the machine’s controller.

The role of a CNC programmer is to understand the requirement and use CNC software or manually program the machine to execute the desired machining operation.

Although modern techniques such as CAM programming and conversational CNC programming have made it easy to learn CNC programming, there are various things to be wary of when preparing a program.

A program might run smoothly on simulation software but face various issues during execution.

This is because the software does not consider hardware errors or defects such as tool runout, low-quality cutting tools, etc.

Therefore, a programmer’s job is to inspect the machining setup and prepare the program accordingly to produce the desired results.

Apart from that, in various organizations, a CNC programmer is also responsible for identifying the optimal machining parameters for a process and programming the machine accordingly.

This role is generally known as a CNC machinist programmer.

Required Skills for a CNC Programmer

Programming a CNC machine requires a highly skilled individual with advanced mathematical, analytical, and problem-solving skills.

CAD/CAM Skills

User interface of MeshCAM
User interface of MeshCAM software

The primary requirement to program a CNC machine is good knowledge of various CAD/CAM procedures involved in CNC manufacturing.

A CNC programmer is responsible for preparing the part program required for executing the required machining operation.

Modern programming technologies such as CAM programming or conversational CNC programming use computer software to automatically convert the design (CAD) file into corresponding G-codes.

However, the programmer is responsible for setting the optimal parameters and verifying the toolpath using CAM and control software.

Machining Skills

Perfecting the job of CNC programming requires years of experience on the shop floor as a CNC operator and CNC machinist.

Developing machining skills helps a programmer identify the optimal parameters, such as feeds and speeds, chip load, depth of cut, etc., for a machining process and be wary of various challenges that a CNC machining process can throw up.

Apart from that, machining skills also help the operator understand the behavior of different materials and optimize the machining process using techniques such as adaptive machining, ramp feature, etc.

Instrumentation and Measurement Skills

Using Vernier caliper for measurement
Using Vernier caliper for measurement

When programming a CNC machine, it is essential to be well familiar with various measuring techniques and devices, such as micrometers and calipers.

These skills are needed during the setup, such as checking the offset of the workpiece mounted on a CNC lathe.

Apart from that, measuring and instrumentation skills are vital for verifying that the part produced is according to the desired specification.

If the part produced is not according to the desired specifications, a CNC programmer is responsible for making the corresponding adjustments to the program.

Mathematical Skills

Mathematical knowledge is another important skill that helps the programmer interpret the blueprints and prepare the design accordingly.

The design of a part can consist of different geometries such as fillets, chamfer, ramp, etc., and a CNC programmer must be able to understand the significance of all the geometries used in the design.

Apart from that, arithmetic calculations are required to set the coordinates during the manual programming of a CNC machine.

Safety and Solutions

Safety sign

A CNC programmer must be well versed in the safety protocols of a CNC machine.

Improper operation of these powerful machines can be dangerous and lead to various hazards. Therefore, a CNC programmer must prepare a program that strictly follows all the safety guidelines.

Furthermore, a good CNC programmer must have problem-solving skills to overcome the challenges faced during a machining process and rectify the program.

Career Growth in the CNC Industry

Growth in a CNC industry
Growth in a CNC industry

CNC programming is a versatile field with specialization requirements for different types of CNC machines and different types of programming.

A CNC programmer can excel in the programming fields of his choice, such as manual programming, CAM programming, or conversational programming.

Apart from that, you can learn to program multiple machines and grow your knowledge and ability, thereby increasing your chances of finding a better job.

There are various CNC machines that follow similar working principles, but there are significant differences in their optimal parameters.

Therefore, to have good growth in your programming career, it is important to familiarize yourself with various CNC machines like CNC lathesCNC routersCNC millsCNC laser cuttersWire EDMWaterjet MachiningCNC plasma cutters, etc.

Another important aspect to grow in the field of programming is to learn advanced skills in programming multi-axis CNC machines.

A CNC programmer capable of programming a 6-axis CNC machining process can easily achieve success in the CNC industry.

Expected Pay for a CNC Programmer


CNC programmer is a high-level role in the CNC industry that requires a highly skilled individual with years of experience, which leads to a good salary.

However, the salary expectations depend upon various factors such as type of industry, location, employer, skills, etc.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), CNC programmers earn an average annual salary of around $62,000, with Texas, California, and Michigan ranking highest in the hiring index.

Apart from that, most companies reward CNC programmers with other job benefits like health insurance, making it one of the most stable careers in the CNC industry.

Roadmap to Become a CNC Programmer

Programming a CNC machine
Programming a CNC machine

A CNC workshop consists of roles such as CNC operator, CNC machinist, and CNC programmer.

Each individual has a particular set of responsibilities, and applying for the role of CNC programmer requires years of experience as a CNC machinist, which in turn requires 4-5 years of experience as a CNC operator.

Workflow in a CNC environment
Workflow in a CNC industry

CNC programmer is a high-level role that can be achieved through gradual growth in the CNC industry.

Depending on the employer, the educational qualifications required to apply for the role of CNC programmer can vary from a simple high-school diploma to an engineering degree.

This is because an engineering graduate in a relevant field is well familiar with various CAD/CAM operations required for programming a CNC machine.

Additionally, years of experience as a CNC machinist coupled with relevant certification courses can also boost your career to become a CNC programmer.

Some of the popular organizations that offer specialization courses for CNC programming are:

CNC Machinist vs CNC Programmer

CNC MachinistCNC Programmer
QualificationHigh-school diplomaHigh-school diploma or Engineering graduate
ExperienceMid-level Role (4-5 years experience)High-level role (5-7 years experience)
Avg. Annual Salary~$50,000~$62,000
RolesPrepare, schedule, and train operators for the processPlan, program and improve the machining process

Difference between a CNC machinist and CNC programmer

CNC machinist and CNC programmer are different roles in a CNC workshop, which are often confused as one.

A CNC machinist is mainly involved with the tasks on the shop floor, whereas a CNC programmer is mainly concerned with programming CNC machines by using a computer system.

The role and responsibilities of a CNC machinist include setting up the CNC machine and inspecting the operation.

On the other hand, the CNC programmer is responsible for programming the CNC machine and entering the optimal machining parameters.

However, a CNC machinist helps the CNC programmer to identify the value of those optimal parameters.

A CNC machinist is also responsible for training CNC operators to execute new machining operations and perform different maintenance procedures.

When compared to a CNC operator, a CNC machinist is an experienced individual who is responsible for managing a team of operators.

Whereas CNC programmer is a high-level role that can be achieved after gaining a few years of experience as a machinist.

With more experience comes more salary. A CNC machinist earns an average annual salary of around $50,000, while a CNC programmer earns around $62,000.

Furthermore, a CNC programmer must have knowledge about different programming techniques and G-code editors, which is not required for a CNC machinist.

Final Thoughts

CNC programming is an excellent career choice that provides a stable income and various growth opportunities in your desired field of interest.

With technological advancement, almost every industry is switching to CNC machining, making it one of the most sought-after profiles in the manufacturing industry.

However, depending upon the complexity of the part geometry and the number of axes of the CNC machine, CNC programming can be difficult and requires a skillful individual with excellent programming knowledge.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Is CNC programming difficult to learn?

No, CNC programming is relatively easy to learn. Advanced CNC software are capable of automatically converting the design into corresponding codes and toolpaths. However, it is important to have an experienced CNC programmer to verify the program and modify it to achieve the desired results efficiently. Furthermore, the difficulty of programming depends upon the complexity of the process. A 6- axis CNC machine is relatively much more difficult to program than a 3-axis machine.

Is CNC programming an office job?

No, CNC programming is not entirely an office job. A CNC programmer spends most of his time programming the machine on a computer but he is also responsible for setting up the machine and verifying the process for the first few runs to ensure the desired output. Therefore, CNC programming is an office job with certain shop floor responsibilities.

Can a CAM CNC programmer switch to manual CNC programming?

Yes, a CAM CNC programmer can switch to manual CNC programming. However, the individual must be well familiar with various codes used for programming the machine and have good mathematical and analytical skills to read the blueprints and prepare the program manually.

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