Make Your Laboratory a Talent Magnet
Attracting—and keeping—young, skilled technicians
As consolidation continues and the digital evolution requires more capital, opening a laboratory has become cost-prohibitive for newer technicians. Meanwhile, more of a need exists for established laboratories to bring in talented, knowledgeable young technicians, as various pressures increase the importance of efficiency and quality. One would think that these problems would solve each other: talented young technicians need work that does not involve starting a business, and laboratories need talented young employees. But the workforce has changed and laboratories must adapt to what these younger and typically more technologically skilled workers want out of their workplace and careers.
Consider the forces that once drove many technicians to open their own shops. Historically, the industry has not provided much motivation for entry-level technicians to stay with their first laboratory. According to the NADL 2019 Business Survey Report, the average pay for the least experienced dental technicians was $14.78 per hour, only 50.2% of laboratories offer health insurance, and almost 39% offer no benefits at all.
In the past, those who wanted greater opportunity and compensation often did so by going into business. Of course, this desire persists; Arax S. Cohen, MS, CDT, CDA, TE, Department Chair of Dental Technology at Los Angeles City College, says that 30% of each dental technology class plans to open their own laboratory within 5 years of graduation.
But that is not so easy nowadays, and forward-thinking laboratories need to provide these ambitious technicians with other venues to learn the craft and pursue their goals.
"People want more than just a job," says Joshua Polansky, MDC, BA, owner of Niche Dental Studio in Voorhees, New Jersey. "They want careers in which they learn, grow, and are recognized for their contributions. Ultimately, it benefits the laboratory to have and keep engaged employees like this."
The statistics bear out this theory. Engaged employees are "fully absorbed by and enthusiastic about their work and so [take] positive action to further the organization's reputation and interests."1According to Naz Beheshti's article "10 Timely Statistics About The Connection Between Employee Engagement And Wellness" in Forbes, "highly engaged teams show 21% greater profitability. Teams who score in the top 20% in engagement realize a 41% reduction in absenteeism, and 59% less turnover."2 This reduction in turnover could be a huge boost to laboratories, which often have difficulty filling positions.
So how does a laboratory approach hiring these newer, ambitious, and more technologically savvy technicians?
There are three main things that laboratories should offer if they want to attract and cultivate this kind of talent: training and education; purpose and a career path; and a comfortable place to earn a living. Ultimately these should all work together to give all the laboratory's technical workers good reason to stay and grow with their employers.
"Younger people today are looking for more than just a paycheck," Polansky continues. "You have to attract them by making it a great place to work. You want them to know they're going grow with your laboratory, learn more with you. You need to keep them involved."
The trends on hiring new laboratory technicians are often split along the lines of what kind of training the laboratory requires and/or can provide. More than half of laboratories in an IDT survey listed "training unskilled hires" among the top ways they find new talent, though that percentage was higher for laboratories with more than 10 employees. Approximately one-fifth of laboratories of all sizes said they still hire from college programs. All of these fledgling technicians, whether formally schooled or not, need on-the-job training to become productive and knowledgeable members of the laboratory. They usually know this and will seek out opportunities where they can learn the most.
"Everyone knows computers because we grew up with them, but most do not know enough about teeth," says 23-year old technician Austin Davis. "This industry is amazing because everyone wants to teach. Take advantage of every opportunity to learn as much as possible."
Davis entered the industry with no dental experience, learning from the ground up at Killian Dental Laboratory in Irvine, California, under the tutelage of Steve Killian, CDT, and other experienced dental technicians.
"I learned completely on the job, plus through in-house CE," says Davis. "I learned morphology in the model room, learning the outlines of what a tooth really looks like. They do a lot of training in the laboratory—Nobel courses, PTC Training, VITA, webinars with Whip Mix, and Steve Killian and other advanced technicians sharing their wealth of knowledge."
Davis could only have succeeded in his new industry through the laboratory's dedication to training and his own eagerness to learn. In his 5 years there, Davis rose through the ranks to become Lead Designer-Digital Solutions and helped shape the laboratory's digital department, doubling its size and digital capabilities during his tenure. Now he is the CAD/CAM Director at Sunshine Dentalworks in Orange, California, spearheading this 15-year-old laboratory's transition to a digital workflow and hoping to soon gain equity in the business.
It is no surprise that younger people are extremely comfortable with technological advances. While the digitization of the industry has been approached with caution by some seasoned technicians, the younger "digital natives" are curious and excited about the new technologies. This can be a great asset to laboratories looking to digitize their operations, especially in hiring new talent.
"Now with CAM, I want to know how they are with their minds, all this technical material," Polansky says. "I'm 40 years old. I'm good with computers but I'm nowhere near this next generation. I don't know half of what they're talking about. So I want them to be very advanced in those areas—because I am not."
In fact, Polansky finds that teaching new technicians is much easier and more efficient via CAD.
"Computer training is much easier for quality control," he says. "You can look at it all on screen together before anything physical is actually made. Before, they worked on something for a few hours, and if they made a mistake, they had to completely remake it. Now it just takes a couple of clicks on a screen and you're back in business; and you haven't wasted any materials in the meantime."
Some laboratories prefer that their trainees have formal education. Adam Mieleszko, CDT, "tries out" students from the nearby New York City College of Technology as interns at his laboratory at Synergistic Dentistry of New York in New York, New York.
"Five of our 10 staff technicians are graduates who came here straight from school, learning on the job," Mieleszko says. "I believe the school gives a good base, but new technicians need more real-world-type experience. We take some very early and train them into what we need."
Training entry-level technicians in practical laboratory skills is only one part of the equation to attracting new talent, of course. The real bonus lies in continuing that training as they develop their careers.
"We run CE courses here for people throughout the industry, bringing many here to train them," Polansky says. "We let our employees see that and participate. The laboratory benefits from that as much as they do."
Some larger laboratories have put enormous emphasis on education, both in new trainees starting from little to no dental experience and as a way to build their career technicians. Ottawa Dental Laboratory offers an excellent example of a sizable business (with more than 100 technicians) that prioritizes continuing education.
"We go all-out with our training," says Mark Williamson, CDT, Senior Technical Manager. "We've got a full-time trainer, a full-time technical trainer, a private study group to prepare for the CDT test, and many other initiatives."
Of course, education cannot be separated from advancement within the field, as greater experience leads to greater career opportunities. Not only can this help laboratories find and keep the talent that they need, but it helps them have a "talent pipeline" so that there is always someone moving up in skill level and able to take over when other technicians retire or leave.
Williamson's laboratory has long had a talent pipeline like this.
"When I started at Ottawa, there were four levels of technicians, each with different responsibilities and pay grades," he says. "Level 1 is mostly entry-level technicians. As they become more productive and learn more, they test into higher levels. Level 4 requires becoming a CDT. Now we also have Level 5, which is a senior technician."
The main reason for this system is simple and a common complaint among laboratory managers: Finding trained technicians is difficult.
"So we have a system to train from the ground up," Williamson says, "but we make sure there are stages to the laboratory work that are appropriate to their level of experience. People get recognized for their accomplishments, leveling up. There is a whole career path. They can start at entry level and go all the way to management. As we grow and expand, there are more opportunities. The new people can see the more senior technicians who have built their lives here, and they see it's a great career—especially to work in a place that's willing to pay you to learn and give you a career."
The sense of a path forward within the same company gets and keeps motivated technicians engaged.
"There's always something new," Williamson continues. "It will never get boring as far as the technology is concerned. Every case and level are different. The work grows and varies as the technicians grow their experience. Technicians' capabilities change, too, as they level up."
Career opportunities are not the only way to motivate and engage workers. Being able to tie laboratory work to real people and learn a great variety of skills are two of the many benefits enjoyed by those who work in-house at dental practices. "Dentists/in-house laboratories, especially practices that do implant work, are hiring," says Anita Bobich, BA, CDT, Program Administrator of Restorative Dentistry at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, CA. "It's an excellent opportunity for students to take a lot of responsibility but also fine tune their skill set in the fastest possible way across many areas."
Providing a Great Place to Work
The prospect of continued learning, growth opportunities, and meaningful work all contribute to job satisfaction. Another important aspect, though, is feeling comfortable in the workplace, both physically and emotionally.
That physical comfort generally relates to the state of the workplace itself.
"Laboratories in the past were seen as these dirty, cramped little places with wax all over the floor," Polansky says. "Nowadays you have to make it attractive to work at your laboratory."
Polansky has adopted this approach to his own laboratory, which is a bright, clean, open space. It was very thoughtfully designed to have a welcoming esthetic for patients coming to get their photographs taken, laboratory professionals visiting for continuing education courses, and, of course, the employees who are there day after day.
Young people considering careers in the dental laboratory are also attracted to the technology.
"We've built a new building that is fully digital, and lots of the technicians working there are quite young," Williamson says. "They're scanning and designing; they're running mills and printers. Younger people are interested in that. If we were producing the old analog way, by hand, some of these younger people may not come. It's the computer angle; it keeps them interested."
Of course, another aspect of physical comfort is compensation. A technician who has no benefits, works 50 hours a week, and still has trouble paying their bills often is not a happy employee; they are going to be tempted by higher compensation elsewhere.
"The pay, the benefits—they're important to people," Williamson says. "We have bi-weekly paydays (no waiting on client payment for our technicians to get paid), health insurance, and a really nice benefits package that people get after 90 days. We take care of our people."
Emotional comfort encompasses many things. It can include everything from employee engagement to the company's culture.
"Employees today want more, and it's more demanding for the manager," Polansky says. "You've got to worry about how they feel about what they're doing, if they're engaged; because if not, you're not going to attract new people. Employees today want to be part of what they see happening in the industry. If we're not providing that, they're going to leave to find that on their own."
At Ottawa, Williamson says, technicians need to be passionate about what they do to succeed in this business. "We want to be loyal and inspire loyalty, passion, and teamwork," he says. "‘Win together' is one of our core values."
Plus, Williamson says, the effort the company puts into its culture makes it feel a lot more personal. "We're involved in community events and charitable causes; we even have Santa on-site handing out a gift to each of our workers' kids every year," he says. "We all depend on each other at work, so we are like a second family. It's important to us to have that environment."
Ultimately, both technicians and laboratories see each other in terms of investment. Hirers need to realize that their job candidates are evaluating them too: Will I learn the ropes here? Will I be able to build a career here, or is this just a stepping stone? Am I going to be happy with what I do and where I go to work every day?
"Applicants need to consider the laboratory they're applying to as an investment in themselves," Davis says. "They want a laboratory that will educate them, especially in digital technology."
Laboratory managers want to feel confident that they are not wasting their time and money by hiring a less experienced person: Will they be worth the extra training? What kind of skills will they bring to benefit the business? Will they stick around long enough to make it all worthwhile?
With all of these considerations, laboratories need to see that making and keeping their technicians satisfied is an investment for long-term success.
Polansky sums it up: "You invest in your equipment, in your facility, so why not train your workers to keep them knowledgeable, happy, and doing their best work for you? Doing all these things to invest in people may not be easy or cheap, but the return on that investment is so, so worth it."
1. Paul E. Effective ways to improve employee engagement. EMP Trust HR Blog. August 5, 2017. https://www.emptrust.com/blog/employee-engagement-a-key-hr-strategy. Accessed January 9, 2020.
2. Beheshti N. 10 timely statistics about the connection between employee engagement and wellness. Forbes. Jan 16, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nazbeheshti/2019/01/16/10-timely-statistics-about-the-connection-between-employee-engagement-and-wellness/#4979f1e22a03. Accessed December 27, 2019.