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How to launch your dental hygiene career during a pandemic

Aug. 3, 2020
This wasn’t what the Class of 2020 had in mind. Here are tips for new dental hygienists to make the most of an unpredictable future.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in Dental Works, a newsletter providing staffing advice for dental practices and career guidance for dental professionals. The newsletter is published by DentistryIQ in partnership with onDiem. To subscribe, visit dentistryiq.com/subscribe.

After completing your academic requirements, clinical training, and earning licensure, you should be ready to jump into your new dental hygiene career with both feet, right? Well, not exactly. Who could have predicted that your professional launch would coincide with not only a terrifying global pandemic, but also the worst economy in a generation? 

On top of that, your new chosen profession puts you at greater risk of COVID-19 infection than most professions in America. What you need now is some good advice for how to move forward.

Be professional

As a recent grad, you need to be ready to answer the question, “Why you?” Having a well-defined sense of your strengths, skills, and goals is the first step. Developing the confidence necessary to convey that in a cover letter or interview is next. One way to learn how to navigate these early stages of your career is through mentoring.

“Mentorship is a great way to be supported as a new hygienist,” said Holly Erenfeld, MDH, EPDH, RDH, an assistant professor in the School of Dental Hygiene Studies at Pacific University in Oregon. “Being involved in your professional associations can help new graduates network with other dental professionals and remain up to date on current changes in the wake of the pandemic.”

In considering the realities of a post-COVID practice, if you have specific training or even classroom experience that is relevant, make sure that you are ready to tell that story.

“Our students had an assignment created by a dental hygiene faculty member working on the university’s COVID-19 task force," Erenfeld shared. This assignment helped students identify the need for change in protocol in patient care that considered PPE, infection control, and guidelines for ultrasonic use to help reduce aerosols. During the pandemic, I think it is very important for new graduates to be familiar with current recommended protocols set by reputable resources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Dental Hygienists' Association, or state health authorities. This will help prepare them for the changes occurring out in practice that will help them stay safe and keep their patients safe as well.”

Be prepared

The value of research can’t be overstated in an economic environment such as this one. Doing the work to learn about a practice where you’re interviewing can make a significant impact. This can include reading about the doctors and staff currently at the practice, but more importantly, getting a sense of the technology and techniques they’re using and how that aligns with the training you received in hygiene school. Connecting your competencies and core values with the practice will help you stand out, but you can only do that effectively if you prepare.

“A new graduate should reflect on the experiences they had in school that sparked passion and spend time writing down their short-term and long-term goals to help them reach their potential,” Erenfeld suggests. “Many graduates have a clear vision of what kind of practice they want to work in right after graduation, but in the case of our current circumstances, I think it would be great if they found a position right away. I personally started working as a temporary hygienist when I first became licensed. This was a great way for me to look at many different types of offices in the area and also helped my confidence as I adapted to different work environments.”

Be proactive

Being open to new ways of arranging your work can be helpful to establishing a sense of control in an uncertain economy. Regardless of what is happening in the world, student loans mature quickly and income is essential. Using tools like onDiem’s flexible staffing platform can facilitate dental hygienists creating the schedule they need rather than waiting for a practice to create it for them.

With patient demand in flux depending on COVID-19 spikes and states’ reopening plans, there is uncertainty of what different dental offices are providing and how many hours they can give when they hire you. It may also be that you, as the hygienist, aren't ready to work full-time just yet.

“Even though the economy is tough right now, there’s a lot of work out there in our industry," says Joe Fogg, CEO of onDiem. "We’ve seen an increase in professional job ads and temporary shifts on our platform over the past two months. The first thing I tell any graduating student is to create an onDiem account, fill out everything on his or her professional profile, and take advantage of our one-click résumé tool. It’s all free (which is great with those bills piling up). After you’re set up, you’ve got options. Shop around for a permanent job that meets your needs, or better yet, use temp shifts to bridge to something permanent. You’ll be getting paid a rate of your choosing while you figure out what you like doing and who you like working with.”

A concern about the flexible staffing or temping model is that it prevents hygienists from having the biggest benefit of full-time work: health-care benefits. With onDiem, all employees are eligible for health-care benefits with their first shift, which, if nothing else, brings peace of mind. This has been a feature of the service since October 2019, but feels especially relevant now, as concerns about health and safety are paramount.

onDiem is also thinking about how practices and staff can communicate about chairside safety precautions.

“Everyone is concerned about safety today. Keeping our employees safe is our top concern,” said Fogg. “After the shutdown, we made it a requirement for practices to say exactly what PPE they’d be providing for each shift. That empowers our employees to make their own decisions about what they need to feel safe on the job. We follow up after the shift is done to make sure everything went OK.”

In creating your own flexible work plan with support from organizations such as onDiem, the new graduate has the ability to not just find opportunities, but also find the space to build new skills, learn what kind of team they want to be a part of, and lay critical groundwork for what that ideal full-time job might look like.