Salary: $80,000

Age: 53

Years on the job: 34

How he got started: After graduating from the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Tony Vlassis went to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to pursue an engineering degree. After two years, he was offered a job with Friendship Dental Laboratories Inc. as a ceramist. He is now a master ceramist and manager of the ceramic department.

Vlassis is certified through the Productivity Training Corp. as a dental technician.

Typical day: Friendship Dental Laboratories specializes in creating fixed and removable prosthetics for the mouth, including dental crowns, dentures, bridges and implant restorations.

Each order is customized for a specific patient according to a dentist's prescription, and the lab works with patients only through their dentists.

Every order goes through the ceramic department. Vlassis oversees the coordination and work of the department, where porcelain powder is applied to the dental prosthetics to give them a natural appearance. The powder comes in various shades to match the many subtle colors of teeth, and it is applied in layers according to the prescription. Vlassis works with one other manager to oversee about 20 people in the ceramic department. He coordinates incoming orders, checks work progress throughout the day and answers phone calls and questions.

He also works on orders himself, specializing in more difficult cases and rush orders. The work is still completely done by hand and is highly technical, and Vlassis says his engineering background has helped.

"You need a lot of manual dexterity for this job," he said.

The ultimate goal is that the fake tooth or set of teeth is not perceived as being artificial.

Vlassis estimates the department works on about 100 orders a day. It takes one to eight hours for a custom shade to be applied and about one to two weeks for an order to be manufactured from start to finish.

He said the atmosphere in the lab is demanding.

"It's not one that allows you to sit back and wonder what you'll be doing that day," Vlassis said.

Changes in the industry: Technology is constantly changing, and Vlassis says the lab has stayed one step ahead. Three years ago the lab moved to its current location, in a state-of-the-art facility that also offers a training program for dental technicians.

Gratification: Vlassis says there is a lot of satisfaction with the job. "Our objective is to put a smile back on a person's face."

The good: "The family relationship I've had here with the owners," Vlassis said, referring to owner/operator Gus Diacoloukas, who runs the lab with his sons Nick and George. "We've been together for decades now."

The bad: "The technical side of the work can become mundane."

Philosophy on the job: "Your occupation needs to be your passion. If it isn't, you're not going to be very good at it."

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