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Which CNC Skills Give You An Advantage Over Others?

Jan 9, 2017   //   by Bob Warfield   //   Blog, Business, Manufacturing, Techniques  //  2 Comments

cnc skills

Did you ever hit a tough problem in the shop, one where nobody seemed to know what to do, and all of a sudden someone came forward and saved the day?

Those kind of incidents are what elevate some players over others in the workplace.  Nothing like saving the bacon because you have some scarce knowledge or skill and there’s nobody left to turn to.  Except for you, and that makes you the hero.  You saved the Boss’s bacon, and he won’t forget that if he’s a good boss.

We recently ran a CNC Skills Inventory Survey to see exactly which skills are common and which ones are rare among CNC’ers.  Go ahead, click the link to take the Skills Inventory so you can follow along with this article and see how your skills stack up.

The results are fascinating, and whether you’re a CNC’er looking to advance your career in Manufacturing, or an Employer wondering what skills to look for and how hard they’ll be to find, you should check out what we learned.

As I’m writing this, we’ve had just over 100 responses, so the results may change over time.  I plan to keep tabs throughout the course of 2017, and will let you know if anything significant changes.

What the Skills Inventory Means for CNC’ers and Their Careers

Look at it this way, you want as much as you can get from both ends of the spectrum (common/rare) and save the middle for last.  Consider:

  • You wouldn’t want to be missing some skill that more than say 70% of your peers have, would you?  That makes you less attractive to an employer.
  • You’d love to have as many skills as possible that less than say 1/3 of your peers have.  That gives you a number of rare skills that may give you the nod for hiring, promotions, and raises over other less skilled individuals.

So, as we move through the different skill categories, think about what new skills you should try to learn in 2017 to make yourself more valuable in the job market.

What the Skills Inventory Means for CNC Employers and Managers

If there’s one common theme we hear a lot, it’s that it is hard to hired skilled employees.  There just aren’t enough of CNC’ers out there with the skills you’re looking for.  Use this skills inventory to help construct your job requirements.

  • Are you making sure each applicant has skills you take for granted (i.e. things 70% of applicants should know)?
  • Are you asking for the right skills to separate excellent innovative candidates from the also rans (i.e. look for scarce skills that will matter in your shop)?
  • Are you planning to pay what it takes and search longer for skills you need that turn out to be scarce in the marketplace (i.e. things less than 1/3 of applicants have)?

The CNCCookbook Skills Inventory can help you plan these things.

Basic Skills

Basic Skills for CNC

Nothing too exotic here, although a willingness to work flexible hours and trig skills seem to be in a little shorter supply than other basics.  BTW, you can solve a whole ton of Trig problems visually with the Geometry calculators in our G-Wizard software.  I can do Trig and Calculus all day long, but I often find these little calculators are handier and faster than working through the problem from scratch.



While a degree from a 4 year college or university is uncommon, a bonified completed Machining Apprenticeship is even harder to find these days.

Machine Experience

cnc machine skills

You know it’s going to be tough to get a job if you’ve never worked on the type of machine they’re hiring for.  OTOH, employers are going to think it perhaps a bit odd at the very least if you’ve never run a Band Saw, VMC, Manual Mill, or Manual Lathe.  Those seem to be basic prerequisites.

If you get a chance to run any of the fancy stuff that less than 1/3 of your peers have run, jump on it.  When those jobs come up, skilled labor will be scarce and you’ll have the edge.

CNC Operator

what does a cnc operator do skills

As a CNC Operator, you’d better be able to setup a job, make parts when given a g-code program, set up work and tool length offsets, deburr, inspect parts, prove a program to make sure it won’t crash and damage machine or tooling, operate multiple machines at once, and set tool wear offsets as needed.

If you want to be that better than average CNC Operator, you will also need to be able to operate an overhead crane safely, deal with drip feeding g-code to a machine, handle traceabilty of parts, know how to deal with a shop floor tool vending machine, and maybe have some experience with vacuum fixturing.


cnc metrology and measuring instrument skills

So you know how to operate a calipers?  As Archie Bunker used to say, “Whoop-tee-do.”  You’d better be good with an Edgefinder too.  After all, you’ll need it to set up Part Zero in many shops.  Micrometers, Gage Blocks, Thread Gages, Height Gages, and Gage Pins are also going to be expected skills.

Now, how often have you precisely located the center of a bore?  Can you use an Optical Comparator?  Have you measured the Hardness of a material?  And BTW, if you get a chance to do a stint with the shop’s CMM, jump all over that as apparently many of your peers have little exposure to those versatile machines.

We’re starting with Metrology to move into skills that will get you out of being a basic CNC Operator and into the realm of the higher paid CNC Machinist.


cnc machining skills

As a CNC Machinist, you work to a thousandth tolerances easily.  You don’t hesitate if asked to square a block.  Feeds and Speeds?  Under control!  Hint: G-Wizard Calculator will do a better job for you than all those old guys who think they know it all, keep a copy in your toolbox on a laptop.  Speed up a job as so many of our customers tell us they do, and you’re a whole new kind of hero.  The kind whose results are measured in dollars and cents.

A little more than half of you can manage tolerances to half a thousandth, but less than a third can work to a tenth when called on.  Likewise, most will manage a blank look when handed a sine plate and told to set up an angle for a job.  Chasing threads on a CNC Lathe (that’s one of those ones the boss will remember you saving the bacon on!)?


CNC Programming

cnc programming skills

CNC Programming.  Think of it as Digital Tooling.  You can only go so far knowing how to sweep an indicator.  This is CNC, that means “Computer” NC, and unless you’ve got some CNC Programming skills, you haven’t really mastered CNC.

Every boy and his CNC Shop Dog can read G-Code and maybe make minor modifications.  If they ask you to fire up a machine and perform some MDI operations, you’d better be able to snap to it with ease.

Now it gets more interesting.  Suppose they hand you some g-code straight out of a CAM package.  They want you to go through it, change a bunch of tool numbers to different slots, and modify feeds and speeds accordingly.  Could you do it?  69% of your peers say they can.  We wrote a whole article talking about how to do this sort of thing, so check it out.

Have you ever created a setup sheet?  Are you ready to impress the boss with some ideas for setup sheet innovations?  You might want to check into some of our articles:

Believe it or not, most of your peers (over half), say they can write g-code by hand and that they’ve optimized g-code from CAM to make it faster.  They’ve designed soft jaws and they’ve used Conversational CNC.

Doing all that makes for an impressive bag of tricks.  But if you want the really good stuff, you want to be able to write Fanuc Macros and write code for in-process probing.

Check out our Free GCode Course for help learning some of these skills.


CADCAM skills

Do you want to talk Digital Tooling?  Well, CAD and CAM are the power tools of choice in that arena.  This skills inventory tries to evaluate how many of the most popular packages you know, as well as some basic skills associated with reading drawings and CAD models.  It’s all important.

One thing that surprised me was that over half the respondents are able to use Geometric Dimensioning and Tolerancing (GD&T).  That’s great!  If you haven’t caught up to that bandwagon yet, it’s fairly critical you pick up the skill.  Try our Free GD&T Tutorial Course, and we’ll make it easy to get started.

As far as the rest of it, you need to know either AutoCAD or Solidworks in the CAD department.  They’re just so commonly used it’s hard to do without that skill.  If you had to choose one CAM package, learn Mastercam.  Everything else is a lot less common, and I only put out the most common choices from our recent CAM Survey.

CNC Controls


To operate a machine, you need to know how to run its control.  To program the machine, you need to know its g-code dialect.

I listed the most popular controls from our CNC Controller Survey, and if you know nothing else, you should know Fanuc and Haas.  If you wanted to add a third, looks like Mazak is the place to go.


There are probably a million-and-one other skills to consider.  I drew the list on the questionnaire by analyzing a whole bunch of CNC Job Advertisements to see what employers were actually asking for.  But, here are some other tidbits to consider:

  • Relatively few CNC’ers have worked with Titanium (35%) or Super Allowy like Inconel (32%).  Experience there is no doubt valuable.
  • A lot of CNC’ers have done routine maintenance such as coolant maintenance or topping off way oil.  Surprisingly few know how to maintain the power chucks so common on CNC Lathes–just 24%.
  • Welding skills are handy to have.  54% of CNC’ers can Mig weld, 37% can stick weld, 30% can Tig weld, but only 26% can gas weld.  Considering how versatile gas welding can be, that seems surprising to me.  Of all these processes, I actually preferred gas welding.  It seemed the most “user-friendly” without requiring quite the extreme dexterity Tig welding can.

Here are the rest of the “Other” skills ranked:

Other CNC Skills

You want to be able to drive a forklift and be familiar with lock out/tag out procedures.  Beyond that, there are a bunch of rarities that might give you a leg up in the workplace.  If you’re interesting in learning more about Lean Manufacturing, check out our Mini-Course on Lean Manufacturing.  Good stuff there.


A good CNC’er is always learning.  This is such a rich field that you’ll never know everything.

What new skills are you interested in learning for 2017?  Tell us in the comments below!


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Which CNC Skills Give You An Advantage Over Others?
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  • Awesome article! I truly believe machining is like the arts. In the entertainment business you are either good or you suck. Some are born to be great singers while others are OK. In machining you either have the gift or you don’t! Some can get by and do just fine while a very few exceed to the top. Some just need to go and find another field to work in. I really love machining and look at it as an art not a job. I practice everyday and I am always doing research on what is the latest trend. I know I am in competition with my peers and I want to make sure I never become that old machinist that refuses to learn anything new because of pure stubbornness. When companies go thru a slowdown, I want to make sure my job is secure and they never even mention my name to be considered for a layoff. Times are tough and you need to be on top of your game! Being versatile is key and being the one who solves the issues when no one else can is the goal.

  • I agree with Pablo. Ive been a cnc machinist for over 25 years. Ive made very complex parts to very simple parts. Im well versed in cnc repair as well. And yes have saved a lot of bacon. But I still try to learn something everyday and I love to share what Ive learned with others. It is an art and a lot of fun!

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