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Grady Brooks on the job. (Courtesy of Structurlam Mass Timber Corp.)

Job: Computer numerically controlled (CNC) operator

The role: CNC machines enable the manufacturing industry to cut, build and shape materials with a level of precision and consistency unmatched by human labour.

Such machines move tools along a track to perform preprogrammed operations, similar to a 3-D printer, although they can perform other tasks such as cutting, drilling or engraving. CNC machines can be found in a range of industries, helping to produce everything from household products and furniture to buildings and airplanes.

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“The operator is responsible for setting up the machine and calibrating all tools,” said Grady Brooks, who worked for B.C.-based Structurlam Mass Timber Corp. as a CNC operator for four years before recently being promoted to a millwright apprentice. “Their main job is to ensure the parts come out as intended, to the specs provided, and that it’s done safely.”

Mr. Brooks adds that some CNC operators are also responsible for providing the machine with inputs and instructions, although his employer has dedicated coders on staff who do so.

Salary: The salary of a CNC operator can range widely depending on their employer, industry, location and level of responsibility. According to Canadian job search website Neuvoo, the average salary of a CNC operator is $21.50 an hour, or roughly $42,000 a year, with those based in Ontario and British Columbia earning more than average.

“I’ve seen anywhere from $18 an hour on the low end, where it’s more repetitive and not as much coding involved,” Mr. Brooks said. “If you’re doing the coding and everything, you’re up around $40 per hour on the higher end, so it’s quite a wide span.”

Education: There are college-level training programs available across Canada that offer CNC operator training, typically over the course of a year, although certification is not necessarily a requirement for employment. “It’s not a matter of licensing or requirements; for us, if you have the aptitude, they can train you here,” said Mr. Brooks, adding that industries, such as aerospace, may have mandatory educational requirements.

For those without formal training, Mr. Brooks says that an educational background in geometry, mathematics and technology are an asset, as is previous experience working with the building materials used by that employer.

Job prospects: As automation becomes more prevalent in the manufacturing sector, there has been a gradual shift away from human labour, leading to steady growth in job opportunities for those trained to operate mechanical equipment.

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“It’s a fairly future-proof job, because there’s just more and more automation coming,” Mr. Brooks said. “Any training along the lines of CNC is going to get you familiar with some form of automation that might protect you from a changing work force.”

Challenges: CNC operators are under a lot of pressure to get things right, as any miscalculation or minor mistake could result in wasted materials, health and safety risks, and delays in production.

“Any mistakes, any downtime, any errors you make with your math or your setup or your calibration are going to set you back,” Mr. Brooks said. “There’s a certain expectation in the production environment to have a certain amount of output."

Why they do it: The role typically attracts those with an interest in manufacturing, technology and mathematics. “It’s just one of the more exciting jobs on the production floor,” Mr. Brooks said. “If you like a challenge, it’s a fun one to take on."

Misconceptions: Overseeing automated equipment can make CNC operators look as though they’re contributing little to the manufacturing process themselves, which Mr. Brooks says gives a false impression of their role to the rest of the work force.

“From a distance, the job may seem easy – like you just push the green button, sit back and relax – but operators need to be aware and attentive at all times,” Mr. Brooks said. “We also need to be precise in our inputs; missing just one keystroke could lead to a dangerous or costly mistake.”

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