Engineering Craft/CNC Machinist

The Job and What's Involved

Engineering craft machinists create precision-engineered parts, using a machine tool to shape blank metal or plastic/composite materials. These could be parts for products such as power station turbines, aero-engines, prototype vehicles or Formula 1 cars, domestic appliances or medical equipment.

Machinists can learn to operate a variety of machine tools, such as:

- Lathes
- Grinding machines
- Milling machines
- Cutting machines
- Drills and presses

Working from engineering drawings and instruction sheets, they are responsible for:

  • Deciding which machinery is needed.
  • Deciding whether to use computer numerically controlled (CNC) or hand-controlled machines.
  • Planning the best sequence of operations for the shape and type of material.
  • Selecting the appropriate cutting tools for each cut.
  • Selecting the right cutting speeds.
  • Positioning the workpiece correctly for each cut.

CNC machines may combine several of these functions. They are controlled by a computer application, and a high proportion of the machines used in engineering are now of this type. Additional skills are required by the people who program and operate them, as they have to convert working instructions and technical drawings into a numerical-based program for the computer to follow.

Usually they machine a small number (batch) of the same component at a time.

Machinists have to be able to run a range of CNC machines to make sure all products are manufactured to the tolerances required on technical drawings. Throughout production, machinists check for accuracy and may have to reposition the part several times to get it right. Finally, they must carry out all the necessary quality checks.

On CNC machines, they may need to key instructions into a computer built into the machine, but most programming is done off line on a standalone computer. The computer can often display a graphic of the workpiece and of the finished component on a screen, making it easier to work out the sequence of operations. The machine may also be able to change cutting tools and reposition workpieces automatically.

Machinists can also work in a maintenance department, machining parts to replace broken ones, or sharpening tools.

Engineering machinists usually work around 38 hours a week, Monday to Friday, usually 8.00am to 4.30pm. In large companies with round-the-clock production, machinists may have to work shifts. There could also be overtime and weekend working.

Machine shops are generally well lit, clean and tidy. Machinists spend most of the time standing at their machine while they work. They wear overalls, protective footwear and sometimes ear protection against noise.

First-year craft apprentices start on at least £7,500 a year. Newly qualified craft machinists may earn around £17,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Around 1.8 million people are employed in engineering. There are engineering companies in most parts of the UK, mainly in large cities in regions including the West Midlands, the north of England, London and the south-east. Employers may be manufacturing companies, or workshops making components to order for other companies to assemble.

Most jobs are in general mechanical engineering (light and heavy), but machinists can also work in the motor or aerospace industries, or in shipbuilding. Some machinists work on the maintenance side for electricity generation companies, in power stations or for railway companies.

Education and Training

The usual way to become an engineering craft machinist is by completing an Advanced Apprenticeship in engineering. Most apprentices enter between the ages of 16 and 18. Machinist and multiskilled apprenticeships are available.

The Diploma in Engineering may be relevant for this area of work.

Employers want to be sure entrants can handle the theoretical aspects of the Apprenticeship, so they generally require GCSE's (A*-C), particularly in English, maths, science, technology and the new GCSE in engineering, or equivalent qualifications. Those with higher grades may be able to do technician-level qualifications during their training. Many companies also use aptitude tests when selecting apprentices.

Some entrants may start as Level 2 and Level 3 apprentices, rather than at advanced apprentice level, if they do not have high enough GCSE grades. Contact SEMTA, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, for more information.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work, Careers Wales; and for Northern Ireland contact

Some people enter the industry after leaving the armed forces. Adults can start as semi-skilled operators, or learn engineering skills through New Deal training. If the employer is willing to provide the extra training, it may be possible to study for an NVQ Level 3.

There are also plans to introduce government-funded Apprenticeships for adults.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Apprentices normally spend a foundation period of several months away from the workplace, learning engineering workshop skills and studying on day or block-release courses. They then spend two or three years working on the shop floor, but still having day or block-release for study at college.

Apprentices work towards at least NVQ Level 3 in engineering production and may go on to study for a national or Higher National Certificate/Diploma (HNC/D). Details are available on the SEMTA website in the training frameworks and development section.

Apprentices usually undertake NVQ's and technical certificates at the same time, and a successful apprentice will receive an Apprenticeship in engineering completion certificate from SEMTA. This is separate from and in addition to those certificates awarded for the achievement of the individual components of the training framework, such as NVQ's.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Engineering machinists need:

  • To be good with their hands.
  • Normal eyesight, with or without glasses.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Good hand-eye co-ordination.
  • To be able to read and interpret engineering drawings and instructions, and visualise finished components.
  • Mathematical skills, particularly the ability to do mental calculations.
  • Good computer skills.
  • To be able to work to high standards of precision.
  • To be able to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • To be able to work alone or in a multiskilled team.
  • Physical fitness for standing, bending and lifting.

Your Long Term Prospects

Experienced craft machinists who show ability may be promoted to team leader or supervisor.

Those with qualifications above NVQ Level 3 may have opportunities to progress into management, or move into specialised functions such as the design of equipment and machinery.

Get Further Information

Engineering Connections, Engineering Employers Federation (EEF)
West Midlands, St James's House, Frederick Road,
Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 1JJ
Tel: 0800 917 1617

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)
(Careers Advisory Service), Michael Faraday House,
Six Hills Way, Stevenage, Hertfordshire SG1 2AY
Tel: 01438 313311

Institution of Mechanical Engineers,
1 Birdcage Walk, Westminster, London SW1H 9JJ
Tel: 020 7222 7899

Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA),
14 Upton Road, Watford, Hertfordshire WD18 0JT
Tel: 01923 238441

Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (WISE),
2nd Floor, Weston House, 246 High Holborn, WC1V 7EX
Tel: 020 3206 0408

Women's Engineering Society.
c/o the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET),
Michael Faraday House, Six Hills Way, Stevenage,
Hertfordshire SG1 2AY
Tel: 01438 765506

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