A few weeks of on-the-job training are enough for most workers to learn basic machine operations, but 1 year or more is required to become highly skilled. Although a high school diploma is not required, employers prefer to hire workers who have one.
For jobs as machine setters, operators, and tenders, employers generally prefer workers who have a high school diploma. Those interested in this occupation can improve their employment opportunities by completing high school courses in shop and blueprint reading and by gaining a working knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics. A solid math background, including courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and basic statistics, also is useful, along with experience working with computers.
Some community colleges and other schools offer courses and certificate programs in operating metal and plastics machines.
Machine operator trainees usually begin by watching and helping experienced workers on the job, often through informal apprenticeships. Under supervision, they may start by supplying materials, starting and stopping the machines, or removing finished products from it. Then they advance to more difficult tasks that operators perform, such as adjusting feed speeds, changing cutting tools, or inspecting a finished product for defects. Eventually, some develop the skills and experience to set up machines and help newer operators.
It is largely the complexity of the equipment that determines the time required to become an operator. Most operators learn the basic machine operations and functions in a few weeks, but they may need a year or more to become skilled operators or to advance to the more highly skilled job of setter.
In addition to providing on-the-job training, employers may pay for some machine operators to attend classes. Other employers prefer to hire workers who have completed or are enrolled in a training program.
As the manufacturing process continues to advance with computerized machinery, knowledge of computer-aided design (CAD), computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), and computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines also can be helpful.
Although certification is not required, a growing number of employers prefer that applicants become certified. Certification can show competence and professionalism and can be helpful for advancement. The National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) has developed skills standards in 24 operational areas and offers 52 skills certifications.
The Fabricators & Manufacturers Association International also has developed a Precision Sheet Metal Operator (PSMO) certification program.
Advancement usually includes higher pay and a wider range of responsibilities. With experience and expertise, workers can become trainees for more highly skilled positions. For example, it is common for machine operators to move into setup or machinery maintenance positions. Setup workers may move into maintenance, machinist, or tool and die maker roles. For more information, see the profiles on industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers, millwrights, and machinists and tool and die makers.
Skilled workers with good communication and analytical skills may move into supervisory positions.
Computer skills. Modern technology systems require that metal and plastic machine workers be able to use programmable devices, computers, and robots on the factory floor.
Mechanical skills. Although modern technology has brought a lot of computer-based systems to this occupation, metal and plastic machine workers still set up and operate machinery. They must be comfortable working with machines and have a good understanding of how the machines and all their parts work.
Physical strength. Although most material handling is done using automated systems or is mechanically aided, some metal and plastic machine workers must be strong enough to guide and load heavy and bulky parts and materials into machines.
Stamina. Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to stand for long periods and perform repetitive work.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition