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CNC workers far from endangered
We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: manufacturing is not moribund in this province; in fact, those who possess certain industrial skills might just be beating off employers. Take CNC or (computer numerically controlled) machining, for instance. In the US, countless number of articles extol the stellar job opportunities for those in the field. CNC programmers are showcased in the Jobs That Are Red Hot Right Now article, and another story calls CNC manufacturing The One Skill That Will Land You a Job in Any Factory, Anywhere.
And it’s not just in the USA where these skills are in-demand — it’s here as well. Ken Ellis is chair of Seneca College’s Centre for Advanced Technologies, which offers the eight-month program, Mechanical Techniques – CNC Programming. “All our graduates for the last two years have gotten jobs — our problem is we don’t have enough students taking the program,” says Ellis. “We’ve got companies now asking for graduates and we don’t have anybody to give to them.”
Students aren’t going into programs such as CNC because of an assumption that all manufacturing in Ontario “tanked,” [after the recent economic downturn] when, in reality, aerospace and medical manufacturing hardly saw the recession, says Ellis. Along with fewer people taking industrial programs, a lot of people in the industry have retired or moved onto other jobs, leaving “a great void.”
Although it’s true that many old-style assembly line jobs are endangered species, that can’t be said about positions that require skills in CNC manufacturing. CNC has revolutionized the industry, and the skills needed to program, set up and operate machines like this one can be used in many different environments. “Not only in metal cutting, but in glass cutting and in wood working, CNC machines are replacing most of the conventional machines because of the degree of accuracy that they can obtain,” says Ellis. The ShuttleSpace website points out that the precision possible with this type of manufacturing “can produce complex shapes that would be almost impossible to achieve with manual machining.”
Despite changes in the industry, knowledge of conventional manufacturing is invaluable. To work on CNC equipment you need a strong understanding of how to work with metal, says Ellis. If you don’t understand metal cutting and machining, knowing how to use CNC equipment isn’t going to be very useful, he says. Otherwise, “all you’re doing is feeding the information into the machine and if you don’t give it the right information no one‘s going to understand what you meant.”
Practically every manufacturer needs some workers who can perform both CNC programming and operating duties, while some companies also hire workers for specialized roles, says Ellis. He says that those who can perform double duties often have a background in tool and die making, mould making or general machining. The pay for jobs that require CNC knowledge varies a lot; Ellis says that CNC jobs start out at about $16 to $18 (for an operator) and go to $45 for a skilled programmer.
The US Bureau of Labor’s Occupational Outlooks profile on metal and plastic machine workers talks a little about the specialized roles. It notes that CNC machine tool operators monitor machinery, loading the machine with materials for production or adjusting the machine’s speeds during production. Those who work solely as a CNC programmer mainly work in an office developing programs that run machine tools. This involves studying computer-aided design (CAD) blueprints of the part and, as this Wisegeek article points out, determining the exact dimensions of the item that is to be produced and the best means of cutting, welding, and boring raw materials. CNC programmers turn the planned machining operations into a set of instructions that are translated into a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) program containing a set of commands for the machine to follow such as what type of cut should be used. “If there are discrepancies between test products and blueprint specifications, the programmer adjusts his or her program accordingly,” says Wisegeek.
Skills, aptitude and interest
When it comes to CNC programming, this O*Net Online career profile says that the following skills are needed: complex problem solving, critical thinking, judgment and decision making, and systems analysis. Ellis also points out the importance of making correct and accurate calculations, being able to work independently and possessing good planning skills. “In lots of cases you have to do the planning right from the beginning, so you have a drawing and you’re reading the drawing and you have to figure out what you’re going to do first, second, third, fourth, all the way to completion before you even get started — otherwise you might get halfway through the job and realize that you have to start again.” Ellis notes that those who land a CNC position on the factory floor should like working with their hands and get satisfaction out of making things. You should be someone who, “when you’re finished, you look at it, you go, ‘wow, I did that,’” he says.
Education and training
For those still in high school, the BLS profile advises completing high school courses in shop and blueprint reading as well as in algebra, geometry, trigonometry and basic statistics. The site also recommends gaining a working knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics and getting some experience working with computers.
Post-high school, there are several training options. In addition to Seneca’s mechanical techniques CNC program, the school also delivers a CNC programming recognition of achievement program designed for those who already work in the manufacturing industry. Seneca also offers a one-year pre-apprenticeship in mechanical techniques (tool and die maker, mould maker and general machinist) that introduces students to modern manufacturing techniques including CNC programming and CAM software.
On top of Seneca’s offerings, Centennial College delivers a CNC and CAD/CAM Certificate, and George Brown’s continuing education department provides a Computer Numerical Control Certificate for millwrights or trainees/apprentices working in a maintenance department. A little further away, in Hamilton, Mohawk College has designed a CNC Programming Certificate for those with machining experience. Finally, Conestoga College in Kitchener has a CNC programmer apprenticeship program.