Proficiency Versus Aptitude—Which Do You Prefer?

When hiring new people to run CNC machines, most managers want it all. They want a person who has run the same machine they will be running for the company.

When hiring new people to run CNC machines, most managers want it all. They want a person who has run the same machine they will be running for the company. They want a person with lots of experience. They want a person who’ll easily fit in to the CNC environment. The “wants” list goes on and on. However, managers don’t want to pay more than the going rate.

On the other hand, most CNC operators also want it all—especially after they’ve gained some experience. They want better working conditions. They want to be promoted to the position of CNC setup person. Eventually they want to be promoted to the position of CNC programmer. They want more challenging work, and, of course, they want more pay. If they can’t find these things in their current company, they quickly move on—possibly into a field that is unrelated to manufacturing.

As a result of these conflicting viewpoints (and somewhat ironically) most companies have difficulty finding, hiring and keeping qualified CNC operators, while most candidates (even qualified candidates) have difficulty finding jobs that will pay their living expenses.

There are at least two factors that contribute to how well a person will do as a CNC operator: proficiency and aptitude. While there are other important factors, like motivation and attitude, proficiency and aptitude most determine how long a new hire will take to become productive.

Proficiency is pretty easy to define and gage. It is the sum of the applicant’s experiences. It’s what they (currently) know and can (currently) do.

An interviewer can easily evaluate an applicant’s CNC proficiency as long as they have some CNC experience themselves. I even have two proficiency tests—one for machining centers and the other for turning centers—posted on my Web site (go to, click the “Resources” button, then click “And More.” The proficiency tests link is the last choice under “Feature Articles”).

By comparison, aptitude is a measurement of the applicant’s potential to learn new things and perform new tasks. It gages their natural ability to understand and master new challenges. Because we’re talking about the position of CNC operator, we’re talking about an applicant’s natural ability to understand and master CNC machine operation.

Aptitude is much more difficult to gage than proficiency—especially during a short interview. Again, it is a measure of the applicant’s ability to learn new things.

Many applicants for the position of CNC operator have no previous experience (that is, they have no proficiency with CNC). Even if an applicant has run a CNC machine before, it is unlikely that the machine(s) they have run are identical to your company’s CNC machines. There will always be a period of adjustment while they get to know your machines.

Aptitude plays a very important role in how quickly new hires come up to speed. For this reason, I feel you should concentrate more on gaging aptitude than proficiency when interviewing applicants.

I freely admit that my suggestions in this regard are by no means fail-safe. However, these steps may help indicate whether an applicant does have CNC aptitude:

Look for parallel interests—During interviews, find out what interests the applicant. Look for interests that require meticulous effort (like astronomy and computer programming). Also look for interests that require a knowledge of hand tools (like woodworking and automotive work).

Ask about favorite classroom topics—Determine which subjects your applicant liked the most and in which they had the best grades. Look for subjects like math, science, and computers.

Just ask—Be sure the applicant knows how important you consider CNC aptitude to be. Explain the tasks they will be expected to perform. Be sure they understand what will be expected of them if they’re hired. With this understanding, they should be able to tell you why they think they’ll be able to do the job—if you ask them.

Provide a fair evaluation period—You probably won’t be able to fully gage an applicant’s aptitude during a short interview or two (this is probably why so many interviewers give up and base their hiring decision solely on proficiency). If you decide to hire, be sure the applicant understands the evaluation (probation) period your company uses. During this time you’ll be much better able to gage the new hire’s aptitude for CNC.