Sylvia Keller wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after high school and even though she had the option of attending university, she liked the idea of a more hands on approach that college provided. She knew a trade was the way to go, but she just didn’t know which one. Guidance counsellors at her school were not supportive when she handed in her form to apply for college programs. One of the counsellors even told her that he didn’t think tool and die was for her (a female). He said, “it’s a male dominated trade and that you would need to have a tough skin”. That made her decision quite easy. She was going to be a tool and die maker!

Sylvia believes that the most important skills that a toolmaker needs are machining, math, blue print reading and troubleshooting/problem solving skills. In the beginning, Sylvia found everything was a challenge except for math. Prior to college, her only machining experience was in her Grade 9 shop-class. Even in college, time was limited in a machine shop and it was difficult to learn proper machining techniques and improve her skills. Troubleshooting, problem solving and blueprint reading were also taught in college and these are ones she is continuously improving in, even as a journeyperson. She truly enjoys machining the most, and gains a lot of satisfaction to take a piece of steel and make it into something useful.

Sylvia presently works in the maintenance department for a company that makes and supplies automotive parts. She started her apprenticeship in a building shop, where they built dies for companies, which run them to make parts. Her typical day would include performing maintenance work on dies such as sharpening and checking over the tool to make sure it will be suitable to run. If there are some repairs to do, she will do them with the other maintenance work. Sometimes a die runs into problems while in the press, and to avoid a longer downtime and additional expense, Sylvia will assess the problem and attempt to fix the die while it is in the press. At times this can be stressful because when the press is down, you are not making parts which means costing your employer money. Basically, her job is to make sure the dies are ready to run and they keep running in good condition.

Sylvia’s words on safety, “I definitely have to be aware of machine safety and personal safety. Even while walking through the tool room I have to be aware of the crane (which we use to pick up and split dies). Press safety is another concern; you must make sure the proper procedures are taken to make sure it is safe to be working on the press.”

On job satisfaction, “the satisfaction of fixing something or getting it to work better is the most satisfying part of the job. There can be some stressful and frustrating moments, but when it all works out it seems worthwhile.”

On wages, a journeyperson’s wages can vary from $23 per hour to over $30 an hour can vary on their experience and where they work. There is normally overtime as well, which is optional.

Sylvia’s advice to those considering skilled trades, “explore your options in the trades. If you are in high school or college and it has a co-op program, take advantage of that opportunity. It gives you an outlook on what is out there and if it is something you would enjoy. Besides if you’re interested, you may get a job out of it. The best places to learn, at the beginning of an apprenticeship, are the smaller companies. I think this gives you the opportunity to learn more. I found when I was in a small shop for my apprenticeship, I was learning more and had more responsibilities as an apprentice then some of my friends in larger shops. Take advantage of job fairs, talk to people in the trades. Try and figure out what would be most suitable for you. Even if you are a little skeptical in the beginning and think it’s best to stick with it, as long as your learning things seem to get better as you gain more confidence.”

Sylvia is very optimistic about her future too. As a tool and die maker, there are other opportunities out there for her. Some may require more courses; however, she could become a tooling co-ordinator, who is someone who is responsible for finding builders for a die. This person would keep updates on the dies as they are building the die to make sure it is built to the company’s standards. She could also teach machine shop or tool and die. With additional courses she could become a mechanical engineer, that way she would have the hands on knowlege, which would definitely be an asset. There are endless opportunities for careers; it all depends on which direction you want to go. She feels that even if she wanted to try a completely different path, she would always have a trade to fall back on.

She feels that she didn’t have any of the support that women can receive now. She thinks it’s great to show more support for women, but women have to be ready to do their part too. There are opportunities out there for women, but you can’t expect it to be easy; it’s not easy for anyone. Sooner or later you come across some trades people who like to give anyone (male or female) a hard time. Most of it is joking around or even jealousy and you just need to let things slide by sometimes. She found it difficult when she was trying to get a job, when most employers were skeptical about having a female working for them. They didn’t want to risk having problems with having her there. She finally went into a very small company and told the owner that she would work for free for two weeks and if he didn’t like her she’d leave without any problems. He ended up paying her for those two weeks and she stayed there for the next four years.

Now in her late 20’s, Sylvia hasn’t looked back. She earned her ticket four years ago, as a tool and die maker. She believes in life long learning and continues to take courses to improve and add to her skills. “It’s important to keep myself open to learn new things”, she says.

Sylvia’s outlook, “I think the better you get at something, the more confident you get and the more you like it. I was so skeptical in the first year about the path that I had chosen. Over the years I’ve learned more and I keep learning. There is so much to learn in a trade and that’s why I think most people don’t get bored of their job in a trade.”

Tool and Die Maker – Sylvia was determined to get into a trade against the advice of her guidance counsellors and became a licenced Tool and Die Maker four years ago.

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