Mentoring for the Future
Preserving knowledge and creating community strengthens the laboratory industry
We live in a world where nearly limitless information is available at our fingertips, but there are some things that books and impersonal online resources just can't teach. There are lessons and advantages that only the personal, one-on-one connection of mentorship can provide. With the overall number of dental technicians declining and educational pathways in flux, it's more important than ever for those who possess advanced technical skills and industry knowledge to pass it on to the next generation of up-and-coming technicians.1
Many students complete their education with solid technical skills but feel uncertain about how best to apply those skills to achieve success in their chosen career. A technician may be able to make a functional and esthetic restoration but still struggle with how to progress in the profession. This is where a mentor, someone with extensive experience and knowledge of the industry, can step in and make a vital difference. Studies have shown that a mentored employee experiences improved career outcomes, feels more engaged with their company, and is more committed to staying with their employer.2
Mentorship is a form of support which can be personalized to every individual technician's needs and experiences. Each of the technicians interviewed by IDT has seen different yet unmistakable benefits from a mentorship experience in the laboratory industry.
Barbara Warner Wojdan, CDT, AAACD, didn't have to look too far from home to find her mentor. After she finished her education, she received a call from her father, Robert Warner, CDT, telling her that he had an opening in his laboratory and he needed her to come home. She joined Knight Dental Group in 1987 and worked her way up from the very basics under the careful direction of her father.
"All of my training was over-the-shoulder," says Wojdan. "I would observe his work, get my own hands-on experience, then have him inspect it. I used to take him work that I thought was perfect, and he would point out every flaw and show me how each part could be improved. At the time, I was so deflated, but it taught me a lot of tenacity. He showed me that average isn't enough."
Warner came by his military precision and discipline honestly, having joined the Navy when he was young with the ambition of becoming a pilot. Due to his colorblindness, however, they sent him to dental technology school instead. This turned out to be a stroke of luck, and he discovered both an aptitude and a passion for the artistry of dental technology. After his service in the Navy, he went on to establish his own laboratory.
"He built Knight Dental on a solid foundation of quality. He taught me to keep striving for excellence, and he taught me not to give up. I didn't like it at the time," Wojdan admits, "but I'm not sure where I'd be if I hadn't always been trying to please him and trying to make something more realistic, more esthetic. I think it's really important to have someone to guide you, whether it's a family member, a manager, or just someone who can show you the ropes. He's been my coach my whole career."
Wojdan's career has been a distinguished one. During her time at Knight Dental Group, she has worked in nearly every department, finally taking over as President in 2011. She is an accredited member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and the Florida Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry, as well as the President of the National Association of Dental Laboratories. Wojdan believes her father's mentorship played an important role in her career success.
"I really love what I do, so even without his help, I would have still striven for a higher level of skill. However, his mentorship gave me a solid foundation, something to build on," says Wojdan.
Now she is in a position to pass on that foundation to the next generation. "My son was in the same situation that I had been," she says. "He wasn't sure what he wanted to do—and then a position opened up in the laboratory. He started in the billing department, and then an opportunity arose for him to learn how to layer. Now, when I teach my son, I try to do the same thing that my father did. I tell him how to improve his work, and I try to be constructive rather than negative."
Now her family includes three generations of dental technicians, and she has found it very rewarding to become a mentor herself.
"It's a beautiful thing when you see someone listening and learning," she says. "Each week, I can see the improvement, and his work becomes more realistic and more esthetic. I've watched him grow from creating just a single posterior tooth to a six-unit anterior bridge."
Wojdan's family isn't the only one to embrace mentorship. Of the many technicians that she knows, she says that the vast majority of them have had mentors of some sort in the industry, often relatives or family friends. "I think it really says a lot about the industry, about how close and family-oriented we are," she says. "Most of us have found our way into this career because someone has inspired us or told us that they thought we'd be really gifted at this. This industry gives life to people who like to create, and I think in order to improve, you need to be coached and pushed to do better."
Mentoring Like a Boss
Bill Atkission didn't set out to be a mentor. He was just looking to hire a new technician to help out at his laboratory, Bella Vita Dental Designs, which was expanding after 30 years of successful business. Since his laboratory is located in a small community in Arden, North Carolina, Atkission knew he was going to have to look farther afield to find a technician who would be a perfect fit. He turned to social media, and that's when he noticed Kevin Reck.
"We didn't think Kevin was going to be interested," Atkission admits. "He was posting a lot on Facebook, doing a lot of things, and we thought he was probably happy where he was. But I gave him a call anyway, and lo and behold, he was not satisfied with his current position."
Reck, it turned out, was looking for new opportunities to learn and to pursue emerging digital technologies. "I had a difficult time after I graduated from school," he says. "I went to several different laboratories where I didn't feel excited or challenged. When Bill reached out to me, I had already been following his work, and I really liked that he ran a small laboratory that was already about 90% to 95% digital. I went there for an interview, and the next thing I knew, I was hired."
Reck has been working with Atkission for 2 years now, and both consider it a mutually beneficial arrangement. Reck has been able to draw on Atkission's 35 years of experience as a dental technician, including over 13 years of working with CAD/CAM. He has also been able to do more hands-on work and has been challenged to take on bigger and more complex cases.
"Bill's mentorship has allowed me to work and learn at the same time, which is what I was really looking for," says Reck.
Atkission is also thankful for Reck's contributions to his laboratory. "I didn't know we were going to get quite as good a technician as we did," he says. "Since he joined us, we've opened a digital denture department with Kevin as our main denture technician. I think he's grown tremendously in the past 2 years, and we're all becoming more educated and skilled together."
Atkission still doesn't consider himself a mentor. As a laboratory owner, he regards the education, training, and advancement of his employees to be a part of his responsibilities. "I was just being a teacher," he says. "To me, that's the natural way of things. I didn't realize I was being a mentor, but I'm extremely proud that he calls me that."
"He's definitely a mentor to me," says Reck. "I've learned a lot from him, but it also goes both ways because I've been able to teach him some things that he didn't know. It's a great relationship where we can share knowledge. A lot of laboratories don't have that kind of camaraderie, especially with their bosses."
Over the course of the last two years, the relationship has also grown beyond the sharing of industry knowledge. "Kevin and I talk quite a bit," says Atkission. "I find myself giving him advice that has nothing to do with the job itself. Sometimes I feel like I'm talking to one of my kids."
Because of his experience with mentorship, Reck has gone out of his way to help others in the field. "After I give courses or lectures, I give out my contact information to anyone who might have questions and tell them to get in touch. I never thought that I would be someone that people looked up to, but after starting to give courses here, I realized that I had knowledge that I could share with other people."
Reck has gone from being unsure how long he would stay in the field to finding a genuine passion for the industry.
"I think having a mentor for anything in life—someone to look up to—will inspire more joy," he says. "I think it's crucial. It drives you to improve and learn new things when someone believes in you."
The Personal Connection
Jessica Birrell, CDT, is the owner of Capture Dental Arts in West Jordan, Utah, and the proud mother of three. With over 20 years of experience as a dental technician and educator, she has seen the benefits of mentorship many times.
"Mentorship can be a very personal experience. In order to truly benefit, you have to be willing to open your mind, let your guard down, and allow another person's advice to influence your personal or professional direction," says Birrell. "It's a beautiful relationship where a mentor not only gives someone the tools to succeed, but also believes in them and inspires them. Mentorship doesn't always have to be taking someone under your wing; it can simply be opening doors and allowing opportunities that wouldn't otherwise be available."
After working her way up through the industry and overcoming her own natural shyness and fear of public speaking to become an educator, Birrell felt strongly about helping others discover their individual strengths and achieve success both personally and professionally.
"I think there are more women and mothers entering this industry than when I started," she says, "and there are a lot of ways in which we can connect and be there for each other."
So when Kristin Ettinger reached out to her with a request regarding some courses she was presenting, Birrell was happy to assist.
Ettinger had worked as a chairside dental assistant for 8 years before making the switch to the laboratory. She started with 2 years of on-the-job training and has now been working as an in-house technician for 11 years. She considers herself lucky to have had multiple mentors during that time, including Birrell.
"I first learned of Jessica when I attended a lecture she gave on morphology. It was a great presentation, and I wanted to learn more from her," says Ettinger. "I was so impressed with her knowledge and passion for dental technology."
After the two got in touch, Ettinger ended up flying out to attend courses being held at Birrell's laboratory in Utah. After the course, they stayed in contact.
"Jessica was always very responsive when I had technical questions," says Ettinger. "Then we met up at several events in the following years where we were really able to get to know each other."
Over time, the two women came to share not only technical knowledge, but also a personal connection. They found that they shared a love of artistry and had faced similar personal struggles.
"I tried to support Kristin when she reached out to discuss decisions about her career path, and over the years, it's turned into a beautiful relationship. I became mentored in return, finding support that I never expected and could never have predicted I would need throughout challenges in my own life," says Birrell.
While we can see many of the benefits that mentoring provides to the recipient, the benefits to the mentor may be more subtle—but incredibly powerful, according to Birrell. "When we share our knowledge and sincere passion, that energy can awaken others' passion and create an environment for growth. Once someone discovers something new and really gets it, you can see it in their eyes, lighting a little fire, creating curiosity, building lifelong confidence—these are the moments that are most rewarding."
Above all, Birrell believes in community and supporting one another. "If we try to do everything on our own, it becomes much more difficult. Even if we are determined and capable enough, it may take much longer. If we surround ourselves with people we aspire to be like, we can broaden our perspectives and achieve goals in a faster and easier manner—saving ourselves a lot of unnecessary headaches and stress."
For Ettinger, Birrell is certainly one of those people she aspires to emulate. "Her professional success as a business owner, artist, teacher, speaker, and researcher really struck me—and all of this while being a mother to three beautiful children. She proved to me that it can be done."
Ettinger has taken that inspiration to heart. This summer, she plans to make a big career transition in which she will merge with a denture laboratory, bringing her crown and bridge expertise. She intends to own her own laboratory in the future, and she has taken on mentorships of her own.
"I love what I do, and I enjoy teaching and sharing information," says Ettinger. "I've been very fortunate in my career, and it makes me happy to be able to share knowledge that can be helpful to others.
Both Birrell and Ettinger are hopeful for the future of the laboratory industry, especially for up-and-coming women technicians.
"Women share many of the same challenges, so it makes sense for us to mentor and support each other," says Birrell.
"I love what I've been seeing the past couple years in our field," agrees Ettinger. "The female presence seems to be growing stronger, and there's such a strong desire to share information and support fellow technicians. I'm excited to see what the future holds as we see more women in leadership positions as laboratory owners, instructors, and speakers."
Sharing Knowledge Through the Generations
Renzo Chiappe met his mentor during a difficult time in his life. A native of Peru, Chiappe had taken a position with a laboratory in the US, but he was feeling stagnant and passionless. In an effort to rekindle his excitement for the industry, he decided, with his wife's encouragement, to start learning about dentures—a discipline that wouldn't conflict with his current employer's crown and bridge business. He signed up for a training course given by Robert Kreyer, CDT, and traveled to New York looking for inspiration.
Kreyer is a highly experienced third-generation dental technician with a long and varied career and a passion for educating. During the training, Chiappe caught his eye.
"When I met him at the course, Renzo was a little distraught, but he had a unique passion for prosthetics," says Kreyer. "He was trying to figure out what to do with his life and how to proceed with his profession." They talked during the course, and then continued the conversation that evening after the training had concluded.
"Robert saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," says Chiappe. "I lacked confidence and felt lost, but he took me under his wing." Despite juggling a consulting business, a dental laboratory, and a family, Kreyer always found the time to answer Chiappe's questions and help him get back on track when he felt uncertain.
Chiappe continued taking courses with Kreyer, asking questions, and planning his future. "Robert is an open book," says Chiappe. "I consider him one of the most knowledgeable technicians in the world. Many people have great skills, but I haven't met anyone else who has as much knowledge of the history of dental technology and expertise in materials as Robert. He became not only my coach in dental technology, but also my coach in life."
However, Kreyer feels that his help to Chiappe was more of a nudge in the right direction. "Renzo didn't actually need a lot of guidance," says Kreyer. "He had a very high skill level and was very well educated. He knew what to do, but just needed a bit of direction."
That direction would be needed more than ever when an unexpected setback affected Chiappe's long-term plans. While he was working to open his own laboratory, he lost his job as a crown-and-bridge technician due to a change in ownership and shifting company priorities that placed speed above all. He was left with a brand-new laboratory and zero clientele.
"Robert spoke to me about word of mouth. He told me to knock on doors, show my work, and eventually I would get a client who would spread the word about my quality," says Chiappe. "It was a struggle, a whole year of living off my savings, but eventually everything that Robert had predicted came to pass." Chiappe landed a single client on the strength of his quality, and word of mouth began to spread. "He told me that eventually, I wouldn't have to knock on doors anymore, and that I would get to a point where I would have to choose which clients I wanted to work with," Chiappe says. "And that's what happened. Now I have a steady clientele and a wait list."
Kreyer firmly believes that all dental technicians should find a promising technician to mentor. His philosophy is that passing on techniques and knowledge will not only improve individual businesses, but also the industry as a whole.
"I think we need mentorship in our profession because when I was younger, my generation was reluctant to share knowledge with our colleagues and fellow technicians," he says. "I saw people hunched over their work so that no one passing by would see their special techniques. As a result, we've lost knowledge, and unless experienced technicians share what they've learned with the next generation, we'll continue to lose more knowledge in prosthodontics—especially in removable prosthodontics, which has the most variables of any discipline in prosthodontics."
Kreyer has been true to that philosophy, helping many determined, young technicians in kickstarting their careers. "When you put time and effort into helping someone else develop, the way Robert did for me, it creates a desire to pass that along," says Chiappe. "He touches people's lives."
Kreyer himself is proof that the desire to mentor can be passed along. He credits his father and grandfather as his first mentors, passing down all the techniques they had learned since his grandfather first started as a technician in 1914. Throughout the rest of his career, he was fortunate to be mentored by several knowledgeable colleagues such as Earl Pound, DDS, John P. Frush, DDS, and Frank Lauciello, DDS.
Kreyer recommends joining industry associations and societies in order to share knowledge and continue to learn—in his case, specifically the American Prosthodontics Society. "I believe that a collaborative environment that includes technicians, general dentists, and prosthodontists is the best place to learn, both clinically and technically," Kreyer says. "Not only can you sit in on lectures, but you can also speak personally to people on the clinical side, ask questions, and gain a greater understanding of customer expectations. This understanding allows technicians to improve their craft and their laboratory business."
He also advises using new technology such as social media to interact with and mentor others in the profession. "There's a lot of sharing of knowledge that happens on social media," he says. "You can connect with many more people that way." However, he cautions, there's no substitute for sitting down with someone at a hands-on course or talking one-on-one.
Kreyer has done his best to pass on all the knowledge that he has gained in memorable and useful ways.
"Robert is not the type of person who will tell you what to do," says Chiappe. "He will provide information and then let you make your own decisions, draw your own conclusions. It's a very unique way to teach. His teaching helped me to believe in myself and develop problem-solving skills, even as he taught me about materials and techniques. When someone shares that type of knowledge with you, you get the feeling that it's not yours to keep—it's yours to share."
Chiappe hasn't yet gotten the chance to mentor someone else as Kreyer mentored him, but he's looking forward to the opportunity. "Next time I go back to my old school, I want to find a student and sit down with them to share what I have learned. It's the only way I can repay Robert for what he's done for me—by paying it forward to newcomers in the industry. I just hope that one day I can fully repay him."
Making Mentorship Connections
Many individuals who enter into mentorship relationships don't think of themselves specifically as mentors and don't set out with a mission to mentor others. However, it benefits everyone as individuals and the industry as a whole to promote mentorship and the sharing of knowledge and experience.
For now, formal mentorship programs within the dental laboratory industry are few and far between. However, the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology does offer a Volunteer CDT Mentor Directory aimed at assisting those who are looking to earn their CDT credential.
For the most part, informal mentorship arrangements prevail, growing organically from personal connections through family, friends, and educators. Those technicians who have experience and knowledge to share can make themselves available in many ways, from providing educational opportunities to simply hiring and supporting the most promising young technicians in their laboratories—and can encourage their colleagues to do the same. Likewise, an ambitious, up-and-coming technician shouldn't hesitate to reach out to those more experienced; it might spark a wonderful opportunity—and possibly a lifelong friendship.
1. Alter D. Finding new ways. Inside Dental Technology. January 2018. https://www.aegisdentalnetwork.com/idt/2018/01/finding-new-ways. Accessed March 27, 2020.
2. Bidwell L. Why mentors matter: A summary of 30 years of research. SAP HR Insights website. https://www.sap.com/insights/hr/why-mentors-matter.html. Accessed March 27, 2020.