Metal and Plastic Machine Workers

Summary

metal and plastic machine workers image
Metal and plastic machine workers set up and operate automated and computer-controlled machinery.
Quick Facts: Metal and Plastic Machine Workers
2012 Median Pay $32,950 per year
$15.84 per hour
Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training See How to Become One
Number of Jobs, 2012 1,013,200
Job Outlook, 2012-22 -6% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2012-22 -59,100

What Metal and Plastic Machine Workers Do

Metal and plastic machine workers set up and operate machines that cut, shape, and form metal and plastic materials or pieces.

Work Environment

Metal and plastic machine workers are employed mainly in factories. Although the work is not inherently dangerous, hazards exist and workers must adhere to safety standards. Most work full time, and some work evenings and weekends.

How to Become a Metal or Plastic Machine Worker

A few months 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. Computer-controlled machine workers may need more training. Although not always required, employers prefer to hire workers who have a high school diploma.

Pay

The median hourly wage for metal and plastic machine workers was $15.84 in May 2012.

Job Outlook

Employment of metal and plastic machine workers is projected to decline 6 percent from 2012 to 2022. Employment will decline due to advances in technology, foreign competition, and changing demand for the goods these workers produce.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of metal and plastic machine workers with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about metal and plastic machine workers by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Metal and Plastic Machine Workers Do About this section

Metal and plastic machine workers
Metal and plastic machine workers monitor and adjust machines during operation, detecting malfunctions.

Metal and plastic machine workers set up and operate machines that cut, shape, and form metal and plastic materials or pieces.

Duties

Metal and plastic machine workers typically do the following:

  • Set up machines according to blueprints
  • Monitor machines for unusual sound or vibration
  • Insert material into machines, manually or with a hoist
  • Operate metal or plastic molding, casting, or coremaking machines
  • Adjust machine settings for temperature, speed and feed rates, and cycle times
  • Remove finished products and smooth rough edges and imperfections
  • Test and compare finished workpieces to specifications
  • Remove and replace dull cutting tools
  • Document production numbers in a computer database

Consumer products are made with many metal and plastic parts. These parts are produced by machines that are operated by metal and plastic machine workers. In general, these workers are separated into two groups: those who set up machines for operation and those who operate machines during production.

Although many workers both set up and operate machines, some specialize in one of the following job types:

Machine setters, or setup workers, prepare the machines before production, perform test runs, and, if necessary, adjust and make minor repairs to the machinery before and during operation.

If, for example, the cutting tool inside a machine becomes dull after extended use, it is common for a setter to remove the tool, use a grinder or file to sharpen it, and reinstall it into the machine. New tools are produced by tool and die makers.

After installing the tools into a machine, setup workers often produce the initial batch of goods, inspect the products, and turn the machine over to an operator.

Machine operators and tenders monitor the machinery during operation.

After a setter prepares a machine for production, an operator observes the machine and the products it makes. Operators may have to load the machine with materials for production or adjust the machine’s speeds during production. They must periodically inspect the parts a machine produces. If they detect a minor problem, operators may fix it themselves. If the repair is more serious, they may have an industrial machinery mechanic fix it.

Setters, operators, and tenders are usually identified by the type of machine they work with. Job duties generally vary with the size of the manufacturer and the type of machine being operated. Although some workers specialize in one or two types of machinery, many are trained to set up or operate a variety of machines. Increasing automation allows machine operators to control multiple machines at the same time.

In addition, new production techniques, such as team-oriented “lean” manufacturing, require machine operators to rotate between different machines. Rotating assignments results in more varied work but also requires workers to have a wide range of skills.

The following are examples of types of metal and plastic machine workers:

Computer-controlled machine tool operators operate computer-controlled machines or robots to perform functions on metal or plastic workpieces.

Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers develop computer programs to control the machining or processing of metal or plastic parts by automatic machine tools, equipment, or systems.

Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines to extrude (pull out) thermoplastic or metal materials in the form of tubes, rods, hoses, wire, bars, or structural shapes.

Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines that shape or form metal or plastic parts.

Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines to roll steel or plastic or to flatten, temper, or reduce the thickness of materials.

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate machines to saw, cut, shear, notch, bend, or straighten metal or plastic materials.

Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate drilling machines to drill, bore, mill, or countersink metal or plastic workpieces.

Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate grinding and related tools that remove excess material from surfaces, sharpen edges or corners, or buff or polish metal or plastic workpieces.

Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate lathe and turning machines to turn, bore, thread, or form metal or plastic materials, such as wire or rod.

Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate milling or planing machines to shape, groove, or profile metal or plastic workpieces.

Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders operate or tend furnaces, such as gas, oil, coal, electric-arc or electric induction, open-hearth or oxygen furnaces to melt and refine metal before casting or to produce specified types of steel.

Pourers and casters operate hand-controlled mechanisms to pour and regulate the flow of molten metal into molds to produce castings or ingots.

Model makers set up and operate machines, such as milling and engraving machines to make working models of metal or plastic objects.

Patternmakers lay out, machine, fit, and assemble castings and parts to metal or plastic foundry patterns and core molds.

Foundry mold and coremakers make or form wax or sand cores or molds used in the production of metal castings in foundries.

Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate metal or plastic molding, casting, or coremaking machines to mold or cast metal or thermoplastic parts or products.

Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate more than one type of cutting or forming machine tool or robot.

Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders (including workers who operate laser cutters or laser-beam machines) set up or operate welding, soldering, or brazing machines or robots that weld, braze, solder, or heat treat metal products, components, or assemblies.

Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate heating equipment, such as heat treating furnaces, flame-hardening machines, induction machines, soaking pits, or vacuum equipment, to temper, harden, anneal, or heat treat metal or plastic objects.

Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders set up or operate plating or coating machines to coat metal or plastic products with zinc, copper, nickel, or some other metal to protect or decorate surfaces (includes electrolytic processes).

Work Environment About this section

Metal and plastic machine workers
Metal and plastic machine workers typically work in a well-ventilated environment.

Metal and plastic machine workers held about 1 million jobs in 2012. Nearly all worked in manufacturing industries.

Employment in the detailed occupations that make up this group was distributed as follows:

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters,
operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
184,700
Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic140,300
Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators,
and tenders, metal and plastic
125,000
Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic85,900
Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
74,900
Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters,
operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
71,500
Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders53,500
Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
38,600
Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic36,400
Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic35,000
Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers,
metal and plastic
24,300
Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
23,100
Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic22,600
Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic22,000
Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders,
metal and plastic
20,900
Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders20,800
Foundry mold and coremakers12,400
Pourers and casters, metal10,700
Model makers, metal and plastic6,100
Patternmakers, metal and plastic4,400

Metal and plastic machine workers are employed mostly in factories.  

These workers often operate powerful, high-speed machines that can be dangerous, so they must observe safety rules. Operators usually wear protective equipment, such as safety glasses, to protect them from flying particles of metal or plastic, earplugs to guard against noise from the machines, and steel-toed boots, to shield their feet from heavy objects that are dropped.

Other required safety equipment varies by work setting and machine. For example, respirators are common for those in the plastics industry who work near materials that emit dangerous fumes or dust.

Work Schedules

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time and work during regular business hours. Overtime is common, and because many manufacturers run their machinery for many hours a day, evening and weekend work also is common.

How to Become a Metal or Plastic Machine Worker About this section

Metal and plastic machine workers
Metal and plastic machine workers are employed mostly in factories.

A few months of on-the-job training is enough for most workers to learn basic machine operations, but 1 year or more is required to become highly skilled. Computer-controlled machine workers may need more training. Although not always required, employers prefer to hire workers who have a high school diploma.

Education

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 computer programming, 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 is useful.

Some community colleges and other schools offer courses and certificate programs in operating metal and plastics machines.

Training

Machine operator trainees usually begin by watching and helping experienced workers on the job. 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.

The complexity of the equipment usually determines the time required to become an operator. Some operators and tenders learn basic machine operations and functions in a few weeks; but other workers, such as computer-controlled machine tool operators, may need a year or more to become skilled 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 can be helpful.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

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.

Advancement

Advancement usually includes higher pay and more responsibilities. With experience and expertise, workers can become trainees for more highly skilled positions. It is common for machine operators to move into setup or machinery maintenance positions. Setup workers may become industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers, machinists, or tool and die makers.

Skilled workers with good communication and analytical skills may move into supervisory positions.

Important Qualities

Computer skills. Employers who have modern technology systems require that metal and plastic machine workers be able to use programmable devices, computers, and robots on the factory floor.

Dexterity. Precise hand movements are necessary in order to produce workpieces that meet exact specifications. Those who work in metal and plastic machined goods manufacturing must have good manual dexterity in order to make the necessary shapes, cuts, and edges that designs require.

Mechanical skills. Although modern technology has brought a lot of computer-based systems to this occupation, 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 stamina. Metal and plastic machine workers must be able to stand for long periods and perform repetitive work.

Physical strength. Although most material handling is done using automated systems, some metal and plastic machine workers must be strong enough to guide and load heavy and bulky parts and materials into machines.

Pay About this section

Metal and Plastic Machine Workers

Median hourly wages, May 2012

Total, all occupations

$16.71

Metal and plastic machine workers

$15.84

Production occupations

$14.87

 

The median hourly wage for metal and plastic machine workers was $15.84 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $10.09 per hour, and the top 10 percent earned more than $24.17 per hour.

Wages vary by the size of the company, union status, industry, skill level, and experience of the operator.

In May 2012, the median hourly wages for metal and plastic machine workers were as follows:

  • $22.08 for computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic
  • $22.04 for model makers, metal and plastic
  • $20.40 for patternmakers, metal and plastic
  • $18.70 for metal-refining furnace operators and tenders
  • $17.98 for rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $17.57 for lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $17.22 for milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $17.10 for computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic
  • $16.69 for welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders
  • $16.37 for forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $16.37 for pourers and casters, metal
  • $16.35 for heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $16.33 for multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $16.32 for drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $15.54 for extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $15.20 for grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $14.68 for foundry mold and coremakers
  • $14.29 for plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $14.27 for cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic
  • $13.77 for molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

Most metal and plastic machine workers are employed full time and work during regular business hours. Overtime is common, and because many manufacturers run their machinery for many hours a day, evening and weekend work also is common.

Job Outlook About this section

Metal and Plastic Machine Workers

Percent change in employment, projected 2012-22

Total, all occupations

11%

Production occupations

1%

Metal and plastic machine workers

-6%

 

Employment of metal and plastic machine workers is projected to decline 6 percent from 2012 to 2022. Employment declines stem from advances in technology, foreign competition, and changing demand for the goods these workers produce.

One of the most important factors influencing employment growth in these occupations is the use of labor-saving machinery. Many firms are adopting new technologies, such as computer numerically-controlled (CNC) machine tools and robots, to improve quality and lower production costs. The switch to CNC machinery requires computer programmers instead of machine setters, operators, and tenders. Therefore, demand for lower skilled manual machine tool operator and tender jobs are more likely to be reduced by these new technologies, because CNC machinery does the work more effectively. Conversely, demand for CNC machine programmers is expected to be strong. Demand for welding machine operators is also expected to be high because the skill required makes it harder to automate than other metal and plastic machine work.

The demand for metal and plastic machine workers also is affected by the demand for the parts they produce. Both the plastic and metal manufacturing industries face stiff foreign competition that is limiting the orders for parts produced in this country. Some U.S. manufacturers have sent their production to foreign countries, reducing jobs for machine setters and operators. However, some companies are bringing jobs back to the United States from overseas. This is expected to continue over the coming decade.

Job Prospects

Workers that are able to operate computer-numerically controlled machines are expected to have the best job prospects.

Despite declining employment, a number of these jobs are expected to become available for highly skilled workers, because of an expected increase in retirements in the coming years.

Workers who have an extensive background in machine operations, certifications from industry associations, and good knowledge of the properties of metals and plastics should have the best job opportunities.

Employment projections data for metal and plastic machine workers, 2012-22
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2012 Projected Employment, 2022 Change, 2012-22 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Metal and plastic machine workers

1,013,200 954,100 -6 -59,100

Computer-controlled machine tool operators, metal and plastic

51-4011 140,300 160,700 15 20,400 [XLS]

Computer numerically controlled machine tool programmers, metal and plastic

51-4012 24,300 31,000 28 6,700 [XLS]

Extruding and drawing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4021 74,900 63,000 -16 -11,900 [XLS]

Forging machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4022 22,600 19,700 -13 -2,900 [XLS]

Rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4023 36,400 32,800 -10 -3,600 [XLS]

Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4031 184,700 168,200 -9 -16,400 [XLS]

Drilling and boring machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4032 20,900 16,200 -22 -4,700 [XLS]

Grinding, lapping, polishing, and buffing machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4033 71,500 62,500 -13 -9,000 [XLS]

Lathe and turning machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4034 38,600 33,200 -14 -5,400 [XLS]

Milling and planing machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4035 23,100 20,200 -13 -2,900 [XLS]

Metal-refining furnace operators and tenders

51-4051 20,800 18,500 -11 -2,300 [XLS]

Pourers and casters, metal

51-4052 10,700 8,700 -19 -2,000 [XLS]

Model makers, metal and plastic

51-4061 6,100 6,300 2 100 [XLS]

Patternmakers, metal and plastic

51-4062 4,400 4,700 6 300 [XLS]

Foundry mold and coremakers

51-4071 12,400 10,400 -16 -2,000 [XLS]

Molding, coremaking, and casting machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4072 125,000 105,800 -15 -19,200 [XLS]

Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4081 85,900 74,500 -13 -11,400 [XLS]

Welding, soldering, and brazing machine setters, operators, and tenders

51-4122 53,500 64,100 20 10,600 [XLS]

Heat treating equipment setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4191 22,000 21,600 -2 -400 [XLS]

Plating and coating machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic

51-4193 35,000 31,900 -9 -3,000 [XLS]

Similar Occupations About this section

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of metal and plastic machine workers.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION Help 2012 MEDIAN PAY Help
Assemblers and fabricators

Assemblers and Fabricators

Assemblers and fabricators assemble finished products and the parts that go into them. They use tools, machines, and their hands to make engines, computers, aircraft, ships, boats, toys, electronic devices, control panels, and more.

High school diploma or equivalent $28,580
Industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers

Industrial Machinery Mechanics and Maintenance Workers and Millwrights

Industrial machinery mechanics and maintenance workers maintain and repair factory equipment and other industrial machinery, such as conveying systems, production machinery, and packaging equipment. Millwrights install, dismantle, repair, reassemble, and move machinery in factories, power plants, and construction sites.

High school diploma or equivalent $45,840
Machinists and tool and die makers

Machinists and Tool and Die Makers

Machinists and tool and die makers set up and operate a variety of computer-controlled and mechanically-controlled machine tools to produce precision metal parts, instruments, and tools.

High school diploma or equivalent $40,910
Painting and coating workers

Painting and Coating Workers

Painting and coating workers paint and coat a wide range of products, including cars, jewelry, and ceramics.

See How to Become One $32,850
Computer programmers

Computer Programmers

Computer programmers write code to create software programs. They turn the program designs created by software developers and engineers into instructions that a computer can follow.

Bachelor’s degree $74,280

Contacts for More Information About this section

For more information about metal and plastic machine workers, including training and certification, visit 

Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA)

National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS)

For general information about manufacturing careers, machinery, and equipment, visit

Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT)

National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA)

Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA)

Precision Metalforming Association (PMA)

O*NET

Multiple Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders

Heat Treating Equipment Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Plating and Coating Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Molding, Coremaking, and Casting Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Foundry Mold and Coremakers

Patternmakers, Metal and Plastic

Model Makers, Metal and Plastic

Pourers and Casters, Metal

Metal-Refining Furnace Operators and Tenders

Milling and Planing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Lathe and Turning Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Grinding, Lapping, Polishing, and Buffing Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Drilling and Boring Machine Tool Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Cutting, Punching, and Press Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Rolling Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Forging Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Extruding and Drawing Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders, Metal and Plastic

Computer-Controlled Machine Tool Operators, Metal and Plastic

Computer Numerically Controlled Machine Tool Programmers, Metal and Plastic

Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, Metal and Plastic Machine Workers,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/production/metal-and-plastic-machine-workers.htm (visited November 22, 2014).

Publish Date: Wednesday, January 8, 2014