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Machinist - The Dirty Word

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

I was speaking with a friend recently who is a machinist. He was venting his frustration to me that the manager of the company where he works here in Pennsylvania doesn't recognize the difference between the machinists and the machine operators at their company. Essentially indicating that they are all machinist.

This, of course, is an insult to the machinist much the same as a doctor would be insulted if the hospital manager failed to recognize the difference between a doctor and a say an RN.

My instinct was to call foul. But is this true?

When I was a machinist apprentice many years ago, there was a clear distinction between the machinists and operators, but that was primarily in a manual machining environment. I also recall machinists being held in high regard, at least within our circles, I assume because people knew that we were skilled tradesman. So from my perspective, this is a relatively new phenomenon. I wanted to look into this further, but before doing so I thought it important to define machinist and machine operator.

This is what the internet has to say about that.


"A machinist is a person who machines using hand tools and machine tools to create or modify a part that is made of metal, plastic, or wood".

Based on that definition, a machine operator, who runs a machine tool to make parts would classify as a machinist.


"Machine operators are also known as machinists or tool and die makers work with heavy machinery from setup to operation".

Wikipedia says the following regarding machine operators: "Some titles reflect further development of machinist skills such as tool and die maker, patternmaker, mold maker, programmer, and operator. Depending on the company, a machinist can be any or all of the titles listed above."


I don't like much about these internet definitions. Specifically, the part that says: "Further development as a machinist can elevate one to the title of "Operator". Huh? Well, that's a ridiculous statement.

Or the part that says: "Machine operators, also known as machinists or tool and die makers work with heavy machinery from setup to operation". Really? What planet is this on?

As a machinist, I take exception to the internet's definition as I guess many others would as well. A machinist is first and foremost a skilled tradesman.

As a skilled tradesman, a machinist must possess a vast amount of knowledge pertaining to mechanical systems, machine tools, work holding devices, material properties, cutting tools, measuring tools, industry standards, geometric tolerancing, cutting parameters and how to process a work-piece from start to finish across several very different machine tools. And a machinist must do all of this in a way that best balances time & quality. Mastering any one of these takes years of on the job education. A machine operator isn't necessarily required to possess any of these skills.

As an operator, at a basic level, a person likely needs to know how to start the production cycle, stop the production cycle, be alert in case of anything unusual in the cycle, shut the machine down in case of emergency, perhaps make minor dimensional changes and have a basic understanding of blueprints and inspection techniques.

Somehow, we are at a point in time in our society in which the terms machine operator and machinist or toolmaker are being used synonymously on the internet and by today's corporate management.

Further complicating this scenario is that managers, human resources personnel and job posters seem ignorant to the fact that there is a difference between an experienced machinist and a machine operator. Often times posting jobs interchangeably at the same pay rate for either a machine operator or machinist.


Many types of machine operation require a level of skill, but many do not. That is one of the primary purposes of advanced machine technology, to eliminate the need for skilled labor. In my experience, often times, machine operators are individuals hired off the street with very little or zero machining or measurement experience. And as machine technology has evolved and become more specific and more complex, so have tooling systems, work holding systems and the CAM software's that supports them. Much of this burden is being absorbed by the machinist.

And while we were all busy working, machine operators were elevated to the classification of machinist, while actual machinists, in terms of classification and income have receded. Operators being classified at the same professional level as career machinists who have tremendous skill, talent and creativity is damaging to the image and prestige of the machinist. My guess is that if you ask ten people what a machinist does, the majority of them will picture a person in a dirty, dark, loud factory, working on a production line.

The end result is a sort of "dirtying" of the term machinist in our society. We as a society need to get back to a point that we hold in high esteem and aspire to be, not only white-collar workers but also skilled tradesman.

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