Hot Jobs: Metals and Plastics

Kentucky manufacturers need workers with the technical skills to shape metals and plastics. Thousands of Kentuckians are employed in these trades, one of the largest occupational groups in manufacturing. This group includes machine tool programmers and operators, machinists, tool and die makers, and welders.

More and more often, metals and plastics are shaped by computerized machining. To learn how to use this technology, formal training after high school is essential. You can learn these trades at your local community and technical college and through apprenticeships sponsored by manufacturers.

CNC Machine Tool Programmers and Operators

Machine tools are power-driven machines, such as an electric lathe, that are used to cut and shape metals or other materials. Some of the highest paid machine tool operators are found in aerospace products and parts manufacturing, building equipment contracting, ship and boat building, and steel mill work.

CNC (computer numerically controlled) machine tools are programmed to cut complex patterns and shapes in metals and plastics.

Programming these high-tech tools is a fast-growing field. Although there are just over 300 positions currently in Kentucky, it’s the fastest-growing occupation in manufacturing in the state, with 27.39 percent increase in jobs from 2018-2028, from 314 to 400 positions.

If you want to operate CNC machine tools, opportunities are more numerous: Over 1,800 people will be employed in these jobs in 2028, holding fairly steady from 2018.

  • CNC machine tool programmers, metal and plastic: median wage $49,703
  • CNC machine tool operators, metal and plastic: median wage $39,039

Machinists and Tool and Die Makers

Thousands of machinists are employed in Kentucky. Projected growth from 2018-2028 is 10.10 percent, from 6,364 to 7,007 jobs. A background in technical math, blueprint reading, and metalworking is essential. Many colleges in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System offer courses leading to industry-recognized certifications.

Machinists can get extra training to become tool and die makers. Total Kentucky employment for tool and die makers is projected to increase 2.32 percent from 2018 to 2028, from 1,812 to 1,854.

  • Machinists: median wage $44,745
  • Tool and die makers: median wage $58,328

Welders, Cutters, Solderers, and Brazers

Welders are in demand, with Kentucky jobs expected to grow 9.63 percent from 2018 to 2028, from 7,132 to 7,819. Driving the demand is the need to rebuild aging bridges, highways, and other infrastructure. The nation’s highest paid welders work in the energy industry.

Median wage is $40,299. You can get training beginning in high school, and then through the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, private welding schools, and even the military. Apprenticeships can be found in Kentucky for these positions.

Even then, welders might still need several months of on-the-job training, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As they become more responsible for programming robots and other computer-controlled machines, the need for training in computers is growing, according to the BLS.


These jobs in metals and plastics production have the highest growth expected in Kentucky from 2018-2028.

  • CNC machine tool programmers, metal: 27.39 percent increase, from 314 to 400 jobs. Median wage is $49,703.
  • Multiple machine tool setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic: 13.49 percent increase, from 2,209 to 2,507 jobs. Median wage is $38,813. (These jobs are found in the manufacturing of motor vehicle parts, plastic parts, steel products, and more.)
  • Machinists: 10.10 percent increase, from 6,364 to 7,007 jobs. Median wage is $44,745.
  • Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers: 9.63 percent  increase, from 7,132 to 7,819 jobs. Median wage is $40,299.

The Most Jobs in 2028

These are the metals and plastics occupations projected to have the most positions in Kentucky in 2028:

  • Welders, cutters, solderers, and brazers: 7,819 jobs. Median wage $40,299.
  • Machinists: 7,007 jobs. Median wage $44,745.
  • Cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic: 5,466 jobs. Median wage $39,059.

Figures from Kentucky Occupational Outlook to 2028.

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