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The Toronto Sun CareerConnection


Moulding a future comes easy to tool-and-die maker

By Megan Swaine
Special to The Sun

Stephanie Wells is cutting into a man's world.

She works in tool and die -- an industry you would hardly expect to include any women, but Wells gives it her stamp of approval.
Stephanie Wells, a graduate of Centennial College's Mechanical Technician Tool and Die Maker program, sets up a milling machine at Van-Rob Inc. She is the first female tool-and-die apprentice at the plant.

Tool-and-die makers specialize in the crafting of tools, machines and moulds to cut and form metal and other types of materials. They produce such things as jigs, fixtures and gauges, as well as prototype parts to determine the best way to manufacture them.

Good shop program

Twenty-five-year-old Wells grew up in Cambridge, Ont., a small industrial city about an hour west of Toronto. "It's very tool-and-die," Wells says with a smile, referring to the many auto-parts manufacturers located there, along with a major Toyota assembly plant.

She discovered her interest in the trade while at Jacob Hespeler Secondary School, which offered a good shop program. She had originally planned to study architecture, but in order to learn drafting Wells had to take machine shop.

She enjoyed the shop experience so much, and her teacher was so encouraging, Wells studied two semesters of machine shop and then completed a co-op work placement in her final year. It gave her a big head start towards her new career goal: tool and die maker.

The next step involved finding a good college program. Wells limited her search to Toronto-area colleges, as she was keen to relocate. She enrolled at Centennial College because it offered the most practical shop time, she says.

Wells found the environment in the two-year Mechanical Technician - Tool and Die Maker program very positive, and even worked as a teacher's aid in her second year. Being a young woman in her program was never an issue.

"The worst problem I ran into was getting someone else to lift heavy equipment for me," she says.

The first year in the college program is spent in basic metal working and learning to use the machines; the second deals more specifically with fixtures and dies.

Having graduated in 2002, Wells is now an apprentice -- which would typically require four years of work and study, including three in-school training periods (each six weeks long), taking her from beginner through intermediate and advanced skill levels.

But a college diploma in tool and die, along with good grades, can exempt apprentices from the beginner and intermediate modules. Wells' time at Centennial was well spent and she has only to complete the advanced training.

Wells lives in Toronto and works at auto-parts maker Van-Rob Inc. in Richmond Hill during her third year of apprenticeship. To her, the work is challenging and intriguing.

"I like taking the dies apart and understanding how they work," she says. "It can be tedious sometimes, but it can also be extremely challenging.

"I enjoy troubleshooting problems that come up when the die is stamping parts in the press. If the part doesn't fit the checking fixture properly, I have to figure out why. A number of things can go wrong with the die while it's running," she says.

Wells plans to write her professional exam in 2006 in order to secure her tool-and-die trade licence.

And, given the high wages that the trade commands these days -- a seasoned tool-and-die maker can earn $80,000 per year -- it might very well be a licence to print money.

For more information about Centennial's Mechanical Technician - Tool and Die Maker program, visit

Megan Swaine is a student in Centennial's Online Writing and Information Design program.

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