Training, Certifications, Skills, Advancement: Tool & Die Makers

Most tool and die makers learn their trade through 4 or 5 years of education and training in formal apprenticeships or postsecondary programs. Apprenticeship programs include a mix of classroom instruction and on-the-job-training. According to most employers these apprenticeship programs are the best way to learn all aspects of tool and die making. A number of tool and die makers receive most of their formal classroom training from community and technical colleges, often in conjunction with an apprenticeship program.

Traditional apprenticeship programs allowed workers to advance by completing a set number of hours of on-the-job-training and successfully completing specific courses. The National Institute of Metalworking Skills (NIMS) is developing new standards that would replace the required number of hours with competency- based tests. Whether competency tests will change the length of the traditional training process will probably depend upon the apprentice’s prior experience, dedication, and natural ability. However, the required training courses for a journeyman tool and die maker will continue to take 4-5 years to complete.

Even after completing the apprenticeship, tool and die makers still need years of experience to become highly skilled. Most specialize in making certain types of tools, molds, or dies.

Tool and die maker trainees learn to operate milling machines, lathes, grinders, wire electrical discharge machines, and other machine tools. They also learn to use handtools for fitting and assembling gauges, and other mechanical and metal-forming equipment. In addition, they study metalworking processes, such as heat treating and plating. Classroom training usually consists of tool designing, tool programming, blueprint reading, and, if needed, mathematics courses, including algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and basic statistics. Tool and die makers increasingly must have good computer skills to work with CAD/CAM technology, CNC machine tools, and computerized measuring machines.

Workers who become tool and die makers without completing formal apprenticeships generally acquire their skills through a combination of informal on-the-job training and classroom instruction at a vocational school or community college. They often begin as machine operators and gradually take on more difficult assignments. Many machinists become tool and die makers.

Because tools and dies must meet strict specifications—precision to one ten-thousandth of an inch is common—the work of tool and die makers requires skill with precision measuring devices and a high degree of patience and attention to detail. Good eyesight is essential. Persons entering this occupation also should be mechanically inclined, able to work and solve problems independently, have strong mathematical skills, and be capable of doing work that requires concentration and physical effort.

Employers generally look for someone with a strong educational background as an indication that the person can more easily adapt to change, which is a constant in this occupation. As automation continues to change the way tools and dies are made, workers regularly need to update their skills in order to learn how to operate new equipment. Also, as materials such as alloys, ceramics, polymers, and plastics are increasingly used, tool and die makers need to learn new machining techniques to deal with the new materials.

There are several ways for skilled workers to advance. Some move into supervisory and administrative positions in their firms or they may start their own shop. Others may take computer courses and become computer-controlled machine tool programmers. With a college degree, a tool and die maker can go into engineering or tool design.