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Updated 10:00 AM October 31, 2007




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Spotlight: Building manager has talent for embracing change

It was a cycle of hire and layoffs.

"I saw so much sadness at the plants — layoffs, layoffs, layoffs," Dorothy Smith-Fesl says of the downsizing of auto plants in her native Flint. "I have old pictures of the Buick powerhouse at night; it's beautiful. Today when I drive down the expressway, there's nothing there."
(Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

Yet Smith-Fesl also credits her colleagues and supervisors at the Buick assembly line with encouraging the ambitions that led her to her position as building manager of the School of Dentistry. "I have a chance to stay young forever — students, young people; every day a new challenge. If you don't like change, don't work at the University."

Smith-Fesl was born in Petoskey, Mich. Her father, who worked on Great Lakes freighters, began facing winter layoffs. She was a young teenager when the family moved to the northern Flint area, home to the bustling Buick complex. Smith-Fesl remembers the lack of job security associated with the auto industry, but adds, "In that community, it was working on a farm or in the factory."

Several years after graduating from Millington High School, Smith-Fesl began work on the assembly line at Buick. "I knew I could earn an excellent income, more than, say, waitressing at the Bavarian Inn. I had two children to consider."

While doing assembly-line work at Buick, Smith-Fesl's supervisor caught a glimmer of something in his employee and suggested she consider training for the skilled trades. She began an electrician apprenticeship program through General Motors, working 11-1/2 hours a day, seven days a week and attending community college. Of her demanding schedule, Smith-Fesl says, "When you work that much and you have two young children at home, your lifestyle becomes coordinated. If you want something bad enough, you just fit things in — it feels like a normal routine."

Although growing up with five brothers made Smith-Fesl "used to guys," 1979 still was a trying time for professional women, particularly in a male-dominated field like construction. She was the only woman in her construction group of 200 men.

"It was a positive experience for me. When I think back, what stands out is how good to me people were — my supervisor, my colleagues."

At the encouragement of a church friend, Smith-Fesl applied to jobs at the University and landed a position as an electrician at U-M Hospital. When a threat of layoffs arose, she drew from her Flint experience and pursued more education and earned an engineering degree. She offers career advice that could be useful for anyone U+00C2U+00AD— from high school students to those considering a mid-career change: "You have to get an education. Go to college. Work part time. Your model is someone you'll meet in the work force."

Following a series of jobs with the University, Smith-Fesl moved to her current position at the School of Dentistry. She manages renovation and construction projects, as well as overseeing the maintenance and custodial requirements for the building. "It's like running a household — except instead of looking after 2,000 square feet, it's 400,000. There's so much to keep track of, a lot of running around. People joke that I'm always in the building but never in my office."

She prefers quiet evenings with a good book, after the hustle-and-bustle of the office. Her varied career path seems less poised for repose. "A good friend and colleague asked me: 'Dorothy, are you ever going to know what you want to be when you grow up?' and I said 'No — but I'll keep trying until I get there.'"

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