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Before becoming director of facilities with Joplin Schools in Missouri, Dave Pettit's career included chemical engineering and mannequin refinishing. But his toughest challenge involved helping his district and community recover from a tornado.
FacilitiesNet: When did you start in facilities and maintenance management?
Pettit: While I began working in facilities and maintenance in 1993, I began managing in 2006 as a supervisor of craftsman over the maintenance department. This opportunity allowed me to use leadership skills to guide 29 professionals, including electricians, HVAC technicians, plumbers, painters, carpenters and grounds staff.
FacilitiesNet: What led you to enter the profession?
Pettit: Necessity and opportunity led me down the path of facilities management. In the mid-1980s, I was disenchanted with my choice of college career paths, as I was headed toward pursuing a career in chemical engineering. I had recently married and found myself making the decision to withdraw from college.
I was looking for a career-building, full-time opportunity in a field I was interested in or just taking employment until I could decide what vocation to chase. I was offered a job in the construction field, and I accepted, not knowing that my life would change and my future set with that acceptance. The knowledge and experience I gained while working for a commercial construction company opened other opportunities. That led me to Joplin Schools and the chance to couple my skills with the right set of leadership circumstances to move into management.
FacilitiesNet: What titles have you had in your career, and what organizations have you worked for?
Pettit: While attending college and for a few months after withdrawing from college, I worked as a mannequin refinisher for JACO Mannequins. I was seeking full-time career opportunities and took a position working for RE Smith Construction as a laborer and later a carpenter from 1987 to 1993. I then took a position in 1993 with Joplin Schools where I’ve had six job titles. I have served as a journeyman carpenter, lead carpenter, supervisor of craftsmen, assistant director of buildings, grounds and transportation, director of transportation, and my current position as director of facilities. The combination of working for a public school system and using my knowledge, experience and leadership was the perfect fit for me.
FacilitiesNet: What have been the most challenging professional aspects of your career?
Pettit: I was serving as the assistant director of buildings, grounds and transportation when an F-5 tornado hit Joplin in 2011. Transportation was my main concentration at that time, and working with our staff to meet the needs of a damaged community was a difficult and unique situation. We worked through many challenges as a school district in dealing with the widespread devastation.
The district had 10 buildings damaged, with six declared full losses. The damage path affected about 3,000 of our students and caused $2.9 billion in damage. Everyone in the buildings, grounds and transportation department was called on to do everything possible to make sure our students would be able to return to school the following August.
Working to balance the many facets of the job is also a stiff challenge. Overseeing maintenance and custodial services, plus ongoing construction projects, makes organizing my time a quality that I had to embrace, or I was going to fail. It doesn’t come easy, and I have to continually refocus.
Having a working knowledge of many systems, processes, equipment and techniques is almost overwhelming. Admitting I’m not an expert in everything means swallowing my pride but also forces me to depend on my staff as resources in areas I am less comfortable in. But when everything comes together successfully, the satisfaction of a job well done proves I’m where I want and need to be.
FacilitiesNet: What professional accomplishments are you most proud of?
Petit: We completed construction of and moved into a new elementary school. Working through the past 18 months and dealing with volatile material costs, supply chain issues and site challenges seemed to set the completion up for delays or financial overages. With focused approach and planning, we brought the project in on time and under budget while delivering a quality building. Seeing the faces of the students as they viewed the new building for the first time left me feeling thankful for my job and the small part I get to play in the school career of Joplin students.
FacilitiesNet: What would you tell someone who is considering entering this profession?
Pettit: Facilities management is an extremely rewarding career, especially in a school district. The ability to do something you love, work with quality people and positively influence the lives of students is a path that most only dream of.
Work hard and gain all the knowledge you can. Seek and sign up for any training offered. Listen to the experience of others, and surround yourself with people as devoted as you are.
Treat your staff, students, patrons, vendors and community like the boss you want to do your best for.
Realize you are human. You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Make sure the staff that mirror your leadership know that you care and are genuine.
Dan Hounsell is senior editor of the facilities market. He has more than 25 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management.