The dental field is a career choice with teeth, thanks to an aging American population on a constant quest for tooth-to-toe health and beauty. The government expects employment of dental assistants and dental hygienists to grow much faster than the average for all occupations through 2018, as dentists delegate routine work to focus on the most profitable dental procedures. The need for dental laboratory technicians -- a lesser-known group of dental workers -- is growing about as fast as the average for all occupations. Learn more about these three dental careers.
Dental assistants provide instruments, suction patients’ mouths and sterilize equipment as dentists examine and treat patients. Dental assistants may also perform administrative tasks like scheduling and confirming appointments, ordering supplies, sending bills and collecting payments. "You can’t get bored if you apply yourself," says Kristy Borquez, past president of the American Dental Assistants Association. "The workday is so diverse. I have built a rapport with patients and enjoy catching up with them when they come in."
Some dentists hire assistants with no formal education or training; others prefer dental assistants who have completed training programs of a few months to two years. But responsibilities and pay tend to be better for dental assistants with some schooling, Borquez says. Some dental assistants use the position as a stepping stone to becoming a dental hygienist or dentist; others make dental assisting their career, explains Borquez, who has been a dental assistant for 30 years. "I think dentists are looking for employees who are dependable, loyal, easygoing, good with people and looking for a professional career, not just a job," she adds.
Dental hygienists provide preventive dental services, from removing plaque to taking and developing dental X-rays. Educating and counseling patients on oral hygiene is another big part of the job description. "There is a growing recognition that oral health is necessary for total health," says Helena Gallant Tripp, who has been a registered dental hygienist for 41 years and is president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association. Decay and infection in the mouth has been linked to diabetes, heart conditions and bearing low-birth weight babies, Tripp says, and dental hygienists play an important role in identifying such problems.
Hygienists must have a minimum of an associate’s degree or certificate in dental hygiene to work in a dental office, and they must pass a written and clinical exam to earn their state license. Tripp encourages aspiring dental hygienists to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree to enable them to do more autonomous work, like screening and treating patients in nursing homes and schools. "The more education you have, the more opportunities your employer will give you, and the more interesting and varied your work will be," she says.
Dental Laboratory Technicians
Dental laboratory technicians fill dentists’ orders for crowns, bridges, dentures and other dental prosthetics. The technician’s goal is to create a replica in the same shape and color as a patient’s lost teeth. First, a technician creates a plaster model of a patient’s mouth based on a mold the dentist has sent. Then the technician uses the model to build and shape a wax tooth or teeth. The wax tooth is then re-created as a metal and porcelain tooth that’s placed in the patient’s mouth. "Dental technology tends to attract a lot of artists," says Ricki Braswell, co-executive director of the National Association of Dental Laboratories. "It’s important to have a keen eye for color, form and function."
Many dental laboratory technicians are self-employed solo practitioners who perform all stages of restoration. Others work in commercial dental labs, where they may specialize in only a few steps of the process.
There are about 20 accredited dental-technology education programs. However, most technicians train on the job, and it takes several years to become proficient. Most laboratory owners would welcome having aspiring technicians shadow them for a day to gauge their interest in the profession, Braswell says. "It’s an excellent career, but most people are not really familiar with it," she says.
For more about dental careers, visit the American Dental Association’s education and careers site.