The main duty of a press brake operator is to run the press brake that bends sheet metal to create parts. The job also requires various setup and maintenance tasks as well as the ability to work with other tools, such as laser-cutting machines.
To learn the necessary skills, you'll usually complete an extensive brake press operator training program at the factory or machine shop that hires you. Not only will you need to learn how to use the machine, but you'll also need technical training in topics like math, machine programming and blueprint reading.
Working as a press brake operator involves preparing and cutting the materials, setting up the machine's configuration for the job, loading and running the machine and planning how to organize the project with the help of blueprints.
A press brake operator job description also involves a lot of problem solving to identify when the machine malfunctions, fix problematic settings, check materials for accuracy in size and shape and provide proper machine maintenance. Press brake operators may also help other machinists, multitask on projects and operate other tools, like laser cutters.
Employers typically hire high school graduates and provide new workers with the necessary brake press operator training. Some companies also hire workers specifically for apprenticeships. In either case, new operators complete a long-term program consisting of hands-on press brake training and supplemental technical classes that teach subjects such as drafting, metalworking and machine programming.
Companies may prefer hiring those who already know how to read blueprints, can use drafting tools, understand computer numerically controlled machines and have some experience operating similar machinery. Although optional, you can pursue press brake training at a school that offers machinist technology programs.
Most press brake operators work for machine shops or manufacturing firms that produce items such as packaging, tools, electronics, transportation equipment and other plastic and metal products. Workers can experience safety hazards when operating machinery and also face exposure to loud noise and high temperatures in a factory setting.
Press brake operators may have to do some heavy lifting besides spending their shifts on their feet. Working hours for factories can run around the clock, meaning that overnight and weekend shifts and overtime are possible.
Years of Experience and Salary
Based on PayScale's salary data, the median press brake operator salary in August 2019 was $39,786 a year; half of the operators received less, and half received higher wages. The lowest-paid 10 percent of press brake operators made under $25,000, and the highest earners made above $62,000. Location has an impact on pay. PayScale mentions Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Denver as some of the cities with higher-than-average wages for this career.
You can also expect some regular pay increases as you gain experience operating machinery. PayScale offers this projection showing the average hourly press brake operator pay based on years of experience.
- Under one year: $13.38
- One to four years: $14.99
- Five to nine years: $16.93
- 10 to 19 years: $18.02
- 20 or more years: $19.53
Job Growth Trend
Since technology has reduced the need for factories to hire as many machine operators, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics expects slow job growth for machinists such as press brake operators between 2016 and 2026. It reports an estimated growth of only 2 percent for machinists versus the 7 percent growth expected for all occupations in general. However, turnover will still create demand for press brake operators.
Those who can work with computer numerically controlled tools and who have a few years of work experience operating machinery should have an advantage. Companies also prefer to hire those who can operate laser cutters.