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Please Note: All of the questions and answers found on this page are the personal views and opinions of the author, and may or may not represent the views of the Rockford Tooling & Machining Association, Rock Valley College, The United State Department of Labor, or anyone else...
How do I get into the RTMA Apprenticeship Program?
In June of each year, the Rockford Tooling & Machining Association conducts a written entrance exam on the campus Rock Valley College, to evaluate the individual verbal, reading, mathematical, spatial, and mechanical aptitude of that year's prospective Apprenticeship Freshman class. Based on the results of these tests, the Apprenticeship students are selected.
Is it worth spending the four years the Apprenticeship requires?
Definitely! If you are going to be working in the Machinist Trade, you ought to be Journeyman Certified! There are many things you will learn in the Apprenticeship program that you may never learn, or at least take several years longer to learn if you do not go through the program and try to learn it on your own in the workplace. Plus... aside from the fact that the Apprenticeship program is very interesting, getting into the program just might get you off that night shift.
How would you describe the job of working as a machinist?
I found the precision machining trade to be very interesting and personally gratifying. I really did enjoy working with all of the various pieces of machinery and learning how to operate them all. It was a great feeling to be able to pick up a blueprint… make few calculations… select and install the proper tooling in the machine… write a CNC program for the specific part… test the program by running a first piece… make the proper offsets to dial the dimensional sizes in… and end up with a machined work of art worth several hundred dollars, within a few hours time. If you like figuring things out, and like working with your hands, chances are you would enjoy being a machinist.
How much can I expect to earn as a machinist?
The amount you can earn as a machinist, both as an entry level machinist and as an experienced machinist, will very greatly depending upon several factors, such as:
1) The marketplace:
A) Location: You will most likely earn more in a location like the western suburbs of Chicago than you would earn in a city like Rockford. Much of this is based on a city's cost of living rate.
B) Economic Marketplace: In the early 1980's, many of the local machinists in the Rockford area were laid off due to a downturn in the manufacturing marketplace. In those years, if you didn't have several years of experience and were willing to work for quite a bit less than you had been accustomed to earning in years past, you may have found your self out of work.
2) Your level of experience: If you are just starting out in the machinist trade, without any prior machining experience, you may have to start anywhere from $7.00 to $9.00 per hour. After a 90 day evaluation period, it is pretty standard to expect a raise of $.50 to $1.00 per hour. As you progress throughout your Apprenticeship, you should expect annual raises of from $.50 to $1.00 or more, depending upon your proficiency. It is my personal belief that you should have reached the $12.00 per hour level by the end of your four-year Apprenticeship, if you have applied yourself to learning the trade. How much you can ultimately make in this profession is dependent upon many factors, but it is safe to assume that you could be earning approximately $15.00 to $17.00 an hour within about three to four years of completing your Apprenticeship. Some very highly skilled machinists make as much as $28.00 to $30.00 an hour or more. It all depends on what machines you are running, how good you are at running them, who you are running them for, and how many hours per week you are running them.
3) Your area of specialty: In my experience, I found that CNC Milling specialists seem to make more than CNC Lathe specialists, and CNC Lathe specialists seem to make more than many manual machine operators, who make more than saw operators, etc. The greater the level of difficulty or training required, the more money an operator generally earns.
4) Your negotiating skills: In the real world, regardless of how much experience you have or how good a machinist you are, how much you make an hour often comes down to how good a negotiator you are. If you have ten years of CNC experience and are willing to work for only $8.00 an hour, I sure you will have no trouble finding a company willing to pay you that. When you are looking for $18.00 or $28.00 per hour, you may not only have to look a bit harder, you are going to have to be able to convince your future employer that you are indeed worth those types of pay rate.
What are some of the various areas of specialization in the machinist trade?
The machinist trade has several different areas a person could decide to specialize in. The major departments in a machine shop are CNC Lathes, Manual Lathes, CNC Mills, Manual Lathes, Grinding, and the Saw department. If your Apprenticeship follows the specifications set by the U.S Department of Labor, you will be required to have hands-on experience in each of these areas, as well as a few others.
My personal favorite was the CNC Lathe department, although I believe a large part of this was due to the fact that had I started my career in the CNC Lathes department, and therefore had much more experience in that department than some of the other departments. I also enjoyed the Manual Lathes, Manual Mills, and CNC Mills departments.
What is the machinist workplace environment like?
The machinist workplace is similar to many other manufacturing environment; much of it depends upon the company you are working for, and the department you are working in. Some companies have an assortment of new, well-maintained machines, have lots of new tooling, have pristinely clean painted floors, air conditioning, and allow music in the shop. Other shops have poorly maintained machines, lack important tooling, have dirty coolant in the machines, no air conditioning, dirty floors, and do not allow you to listen to music or even to sit down throughout your 8-14 hours work shift.
Being a machinist does have some other drawbacks, such as a greater likelihood of exposure to various "potentially carcinogenic" chemicals,
(i.e. chemicals found in tapping solutions and oils in the metals), "potentially carcinogenic" non-metallic elements such as carbide dust, and "potentially carcinogenic" metallic elements such as lead, cadmium, and nickel. Every profession, including the machinist trade, has its pros and cons which must be weighed against the other variables in the economic mix, such as pay rate and other work opportunities in the marketplace.
Is being a machinist a dangerous profession?
In addition to some of the potential problems discussed above, there are some additional concerns you might want to consider. Running machines like manual lathes are inherently dangerous. Any time you have a chuck and workpiece rotating out in-the-open, at over 1,000 rpm, you have potential for someone getting hurt. If you learn your trade well and use your head while on the job the likelihood for accidents can be greatly diminished. Through the advent of CNC technology, no longer does a machinist have to continually watch the machining being done, in order to make sure the cutting tools do not crash into the rotating chuck. Once the first couple of work pieces have been manufactured, the machinist can close the safety door and pretty much allow the machine to do what it does best.
For the most part, however, the majority of the injuries you are likely to encounter are relatively minor things like metal slivers and small cuts to your hands.
How can I get USDL Certified, as well as RTMA Certified?
In order to get certified by the U.S. Department of Labor, a member of management at the company you work for will have to meet with your local USDL representative and devise a detailed plan for your four year Apprenticeship. This plan can be tailored slightly, depending upon the type of machining your company does, but it must be comprised of 8,000 hours of on-the-job training in several different areas of the shop.
My Apprenticeship was broken down into the following categories and hours requirements:
Note: Although I graduated from the RTMA Apprenticeship in June 1998 with 8,000 hours of on-the-job training, in took me until August 1998 to fulfill the additional, more specific list of requirements within each of these specialized categories, before I could become certified by the US Department of Labor.