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So, where are all the clinical dental candidates?

Aug. 6, 2020
A recent survey reveals some of the many reasons dentists are having trouble filling clinical positions, especially in dental hygiene. Tonya Lanthier, RDH, discusses some of the survey findings and what dentists can do.

Editor's note: This article is supported by DentalPost.

Recently, my friend and author Chris Salierno, DDS, penned an article for DentistryIQ.com titled, "Where in the heck are all of the good dental job candidates?" It’s the million dollar question many dentists and office managers are asking right now, and it’s not something that is easily answered.

However, I will attempt to do so using some of the data that we at DentalPost have collected over the last year and since COVID-19 began. I won’t promise answers, but hopefully this will provide a clearer picture to help you understand why there is a scarcity of registered dental hygienists and dental assistants. Aside from the obvious fact that we’re in the midst of a highly viral, airborne pandemic, there are some underlying demographics also at play.

Last year, DentalPost, in partnership with RDH magazine, published an annual salary survey. The survey yielded responses from 8,855 dental professionals, including 3,977 hygienists. Here is some of that data and what I think it tells us.

 Why are dentists struggling to fill clinical roles?

  1. A lack of childcare. Hygienists between the ages of 35 and 44 are the most likely to have children under the age of 18 living in the household. The flexibility the dental field offers is particularly attractive to family-oriented and family-focused people. With 97% of respondents identifying as female, this creates disruption when normal childcare and schools are shut down.
  1. An aging industry in a high-risk bracket. Similar to other health-care sectors, the dental industry is aging. Sixty-one percent of respondents were 45 or older. There were equal numbers of RDHs ages 45 to 54 and ages 55 to 64. There were twice as many RDHs 65-plus as there were 18 to 24. Because many professionals in the 65-plus bracket were already close to retiring, some opted for early retirement 
  1. An unwillingness to expose family members at high risk. Aging people have aging parents who are likely vulnerable or at high risk of infection.
  1. Not the primary income providers in their households. As previously stated, the fact that many clinicians are drawn to the industry for schedule flexibility and work-life balance means they don’t work as many hours, thus they don’t make as much money as full-time earners. They are less likely to be the sole income providers.
  1. Part-time workers with entrepreneurial side jobs to provide more income. Most hygienists identify as full-time (66%), with the remaining 33% as part-time. Being an RDH means more than being full-time or part-time; it often means deciding between one job or multiple jobs. As a response to limited hours offered and to supplement income, today’s RDHs are increasingly entrepreneurial. In fact, there are a variety of ways RDHs are earning income, such as in clinical and public health work, becoming sales representatives, or moving into education as instructors.
  1. Unhappy with their workplaces, even before COVID-19. Perhaps the most revealing statistic from the survey was that in 2019, 43% of RDHs were considering looking for a new job within the next year. That is a significant percentage for any profession. When polled about their dissatisfaction, dental professionals cited not feeling valued or respected or not having ample benefits provided. One out of three hygienists (33%) had actually applied for a new job during the past year. That is a strong indicator that dissatisfaction was perhaps reaching a tipping point.
  1. Recent graduates stalled in licensing. While many students were able to complete exams in March, some were not and are still waiting. Some spring 2020 graduate candidates have had many barriers to becoming licensed. Some states required a special hearing by the Board of Dentistry in order to bypass the in-person, patient exam, while some clinical candidates went to other states to get licensed sooner.

COVID-19 did not create all of our industry problems, it merely exposed them and applied pressure. Where there were fissures, there are now wide open cracks and, in some cases, big broken pieces. The dental labor market was in a vulnerable state before the pandemic thanks to an aging, freelance-heavy talent pool that lacked diversity, particularly regarding gender.

We have an opportunity to learn, grow, and build back a talent pool that is more robust, diverse, and better equipped to weather a crisis such as this one. Until then, make sure you present your practice as best you can now by writing a better job description, updating your interview questions, and taking advantage of tools such as Match by DentalPost and Premium résumé search so that you can increase your chances of attracting the best candidates.

Now that I’ve attempted to answer this question, I’ll pose this one to our industry: what will we do as an industry to diversify, innovate, and improve when it comes to developing the next generation of dental clinicians and professionals?

Tonya Lanthier, RDH, is founder and CEO of DentalPost, the dental industry’s premier and largest online and mobile job board, connecting and educating more than 850,000 job seekers and 64,000 dental offices in the US and Canada. Lanthier built DentalPost from a passion to improve lives and help dental professionals build teams that excel through metric-based career matching tools, including personality tests and values, skills and work culture assessments. She is a member of the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), a supporter of AACD's Give Back a Smile program, and a volunteer at several charitable organizations, including Georgia Mission of Mercy and Ben Mansell Clinic. Lanthier is also a board member of the Oral Cancer Cause and Dental Entrepreneur Women.