Dentistry Wants You!
With practices actively recruiting hygienists, here’s what you need to know before enlisting or re-upping
Fred W. Michmershuizen
These days, job prospects for dental hygienists are bright. Just about everywhere you look, practices are hiring. To examine the current employment landscape, Inside Dental Hygiene went to the experts. We asked them to tell us about some of the perks beyond base pay that can make a job worthwhile, and we asked their advice for those who might be looking to improve their experience in the workplace. To get additional insights, we also conducted a survey of hygienists that asked about compensation, benefits, and other factors that make work rewarding.
If you are just graduating from hygiene school or a seasoned veteran, if you're sitting pretty or interested in leveraging your skills to make a change, if you've been experiencing feelings of burnout or if you simply want to become a bit more informed on the current state of play in the profession, this article is for you. Read on to learn more.
Today's Employment Landscape
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of dental hygienists is rising. Growth from 2021 to 2031 is projected to be 9%, which is faster than the average for all occupations.
"There's never been a better time to be a hygienist," says Tonya Lanthier, RDH, founder and president of DentalPost, a job board and online community for dental professionals. "Overall pay and job satisfaction are up for dental hygienists, and career opportunities abound."
Lanthier says that DentalPost receives more job postings and resume search requests for dental hygienists than any other position.
When it comes to finding the ideal place to work, there are many factors for hygienists to consider. Compensation is important, of course, but pay is only part of the picture.
In an online survey conducted by Inside Dental Hygiene in December 2022, 49% of respondents said they take home up to $69,000 annually, 34% earn $70,000 to $99,000, and 17% are paid $100,000 or more. DentalPost conducted its own survey, showing that dental hygienists working for private practices received a year-over-year average pay increase of 7.5%.
Of those responding to the Inside Dental Hygiene survey, 59% said they work full time and 41% part time. Additionally, 76% treat patients at one office, while 24% work at two or more offices; 83% said they are employed by a private practice, 10% work for a dental support organization (DSO), and 6% work for both a private practice and a DSO.
On top of pay increases, the DentalPost survey found, there has been a rise in overall benefits offered. The Inside Dental Hygiene survey found that 40% of hygienists receive health insurance from their employers, while 60% do not.
These numbers can give hygienists plenty to take into consideration when deciding upon the ideal place to work.
"Hygienists are currently the most in-demand profession in dentistry," says Darius Somekhian, head of business development for Cloud Dentistry, a digital employment marketplace for dental professionals. "As a byproduct of their short supply, hygienists now have the advantage of choosing from a multitude of work-hire options. This includes a significant spike in the number of hygienists temping. In Denver, Colorado, for example, hygienists make as much as $90 per hour temping, with these assignments booked out months in advance."
Seeking a Positive Work Environment
When it comes to deciding where to work, money and healthcare benefits are not the only things hygienists are seeking. Asked to rank their most important considerations, respondents to the Inside Dental Hygiene survey listed pay as the No. 1 factor, followed very closely behind by positive work environment. Flexible schedule, healthcare benefits, and input on purchasing decisions were ranked lower.
The survey also invited respondents to list any other factors that influence their decision on where to work, and many respondents listed factors such as the quality of patient care, office culture, ethics and principles, cleanliness, and working for a dentist who respects and appreciates the staff.
"Working for a private practice is most important to me," says one of the survey respondents. Another says, "Pay is the highest on my list, but an ethical doctor is the main reason I would even consider a place."
"Overall, the environment is everything," another respondent says.
"The quality of dentistry being provided by my doctors," another says. "I just can't work for someone putting out substandard dentistry. I have been fortunate to work for top quality dentists for all of my career."
Like many working professionals, hygienists say it's the overall experience that counts.
"I think people now are realizing that it's not always just about the money," says Angie Stone, RDH, BS, a lecturer and author. "There are other intangibles for hygienists to consider when looking for the best place to work, and I think the biggest thing is office culture. You need to see eye to eye with the dentist and how they practice."
"It's really about finding the right fit for you and being able to have that working relationship," Stone says.
Employers interviewed by Inside Dental Hygiene say they understand this.
"At Dental Care Alliance, when we are either recruiting providers to join the DCA family or supporting practicing providers in the office, I find that they are interested in so much more than the dollars and cents," says Sarah Balaster, DMD, Chief Dental Officer, Adult Specialty and Hygiene for Dental Care Alliance, a multi-branded DSO with more than 390 allied practices. "While offering a competitive market rate is certainly important, we find that providers are more interested in practicing in an office where the culture is inspiring, and its values are aligned with their own."
"We all spend so much time at work, so it's of the utmost importance that where you choose to spend your hours and days is aligned with what is important to you, and what you believe in as a person, as an individual, and as a provider," Balaster adds.
DentalPost has also identified intangibles as an important factor in job satisfaction for hygienists. According to its survey, DentalPost found that beyond compensation, nearly 40% of responding hygienists wanted a "more positive work environment and a more appreciative employer."
"Together, these two reasons are the strongest motivators for hygienists deciding where to work," Lanthier says. "Dental hygienists are increasingly considering a practice's culture when interviewing potential employers, and a lot of thoughtful ‘sizing up' goes on before a dental hygienist changes jobs."
But how does one find that ideal fit?
"Every hygienist has different needs, wants, and motivations," says Kari Carter-Cherelus, RDH, DA, who facilitates a Facebook group called Dental Hygienist Burnout: Prevention, Recovery, Career Options and who has written a book on the subject. She recommends that hygienists do some introspection and make a mental checklist.
"It is a great time in most areas throughout the country for hygienists to be empowered to advocate for themselves to attain the positions that they want and deserve," Carter-Cherelus says. "Self-evaluating helps us to know what is most important to us prior to our job search. Knowing what is a dealbreaker, what we could compromise on, and specifically asking for what we want is key."
A recurring theme about job satisfaction expressed by hygienists is their desire to be recognized and appreciated.
"I value what I do," says Joy D. Void-Holmes, RDH, BSDH, DHSc, founder and CEO of Dr. Joy RDH, a company created to advance the art and science of dental hygiene. Void-Holmes is an educator who began her career as a full-time hygienist. "I brought a lot of value to the office," she says. "I brought a lot of value to the team, and I wanted to align myself with someone who valued me just as much. There are some great doctors out there who do just that, and I was privileged to work for quite a few."
Heartland Dental, a DSO with more than 1,650 offices across 38 states, is taking notice of the desire of many hygienists to feel appreciated and find the right fit.
"More than ever, candidates these days are really looking to connect with the culture of a workplace," says Kirsty Leyland, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at Heartland. "People are looking for that engagement, that cultural connection, working with teammates they can really connect with, and feeling like they're making a difference. So, the culture that a practice can create is really important in terms of attracting new candidates as well as retaining talent."
Having the right equipment to work with is also a factor for success in the workplace, and this too is a key component that can factor into the equation for many hygienists.
"I would never have worked in a practice that didn't value the importance of my tools," Void-Holmes says. "I always worked with practices that didn't mind investing in me, giving me a hygiene budget, and asking me what I needed."
"You may not necessarily get the three extra dollars that you're asking for, but if you have a practice that is willing to supply you with the tools you need, if they're willing to bring you to the Greater New York Dental Meeting and spend money educating you—because we know that's not cheap—then, to me, that carries value as well," Void-Holmes says.
According to the Inside Dental Hygiene survey, 12% of respondents said they make 100% of the hygiene purchasing decisions at their practices, 29% said their input accounts for approximately 80% of the hygiene purchasing decisions, 39% said their input accounts for approximately half of the purchasing decisions, and 20% said they have no input at all on hygiene purchases.
For hygienists interested in lobbying their employers for new or improved instruments, supplies, or equipment, Stone recommends putting a one-page proposal in writing. It's important for a hygienist to know how much the new purchase will cost and how it will benefit the practice, she says.
"I would do my homework and incorporate the who, what, where, when, and why of what I wanted in to one page," Stone says. "Showing how a new item will benefit patients, practitioners, and the practice is key."
Making Yourself More Marketable
The most successful hygienists also know how to make themselves more attractive to employers, the experts say. Central to that, Void-Holmes says, is seeking out continuing education.
"You have to go beyond just what you get taught in hygiene school, and absolutely you have to teach yourself," Void-Holmes says. "You must take control of your own experience, and that makes you more marketable, absolutely." Hygienists who learn how to use artificial intelligence, how to air polish, how to do a proper airway assessment, how to scan, how to code, and how to use practice management software, she says, set themselves apart. "If you understand the ins and outs of the role of a practice administrator and dental assistant, and are able to step in to those roles when needed, that makes you extremely valuable to a practice as well," she says.
Void-Holmes says it's important for hygienists to understand the business of dentistry, so they know the value they bring to a practice. It's also a good idea, she says, to dedicate time for self-growth.
"You need to take classes that are outside the clinical realm, such as classes on how to communicate," Void-Holmes says. "A lot of states are making healthcare professionals take classes on cultural competency, diversity, and implicit bias because we understand how it impacts the delivery of health care."
"You have to learn how to leverage yourself, and you have to invest in yourself, even when no one else will," Void-Holmes says. "When you are able to show up better, you're able to deliver better patient care," she says.
Personal and professional development is also important to Carter-Cherelus. "We need to make sure that we possess skillsets and a positive mindset that makes us the most desirable candidate for an amazing position that comes our way," she says. "Staying current on the latest guidelines, technology, and trends in dentistry is important. We can do this by attending continuing education courses, reading our profession's literature, and attending professional development courses."
"We should always be learning, and we should surround ourselves with positive colleagues who inspire us to be our best selves," Carter-Cherelus says.
Of course, in some cases, you can find an employer who supports your continuing education and career development.
"One area that has been very important in the past year is the opportunity for personal development and career development," says Leyland of Heartland Dental. "The ability to build out a tremendous educational curriculum has helped us attract candidates. Also, the ability to create career paths toward leadership positions has been important."
More Advice for Hygienists
Stone emphasizes hygienists should always remember productivity is vitally important in today's competitive economic environment, as dentistry is like all other enterprises. "Dentistry is a business, and we have to bring in money or the doors can't stay open," she says. "It's a fine balance between how much you produce and other factors."
At the same time, in today's hyper-connected world, hygienists have a multitude of options available to them, including online tools. "Another new development is a hybrid work model, where hygienists are temping in combination with a permanent ‘anchor' position which employs them two days per week on average, per office," Somekhian of Cloud Dentistry says.
It's always a good idea to conduct plenty of due diligence before accepting a position, the experts say.
"Most hygienists have many options available to them at this time and should recognize that they need to interview the employer just as the employer is interviewing them," Carter-Cherelus says. "They need to ask questions to make sure the office aligns with their principles regarding providing treatment care that is in line with the latest periodontal guidelines. They should request to see the hygienist's schedule for the past months as well as the future months. This will allow them to realistically see how their schedule will be."
"Doing a paid working interview, ideally for at least a few days, will help you see how the team interacts with one another," Carter-Cherelus says. "A hygienist will be able to see if the room they will work in is ergonomically acceptable and if the tools that are provided meet their standards or if new instruments need to be provided."
On its website, DentalPost offers free resources to help hygienists find a job they love, including a five-step job-seeking guide, and career assessments designed to help dental professionals find a better fit faster using proprietary matching technology.
"When you're ready to look for new opportunities, seek employers who encourage total patient care," Lanthier says. "As dental hygienists, we feel the most fulfilled when we can provide top-quality, personalized care in a practice environment that makes patient care a top priority. Be sure to look online for reviews from patients, as well as past and current team members."
"Be sure you understand yourself and your leading motivators when it comes to finding the best fit for you," Lanthier says.
For new graduates, Somekhian of Cloud Dentistry has some additional advice. "Don't accept the first job that comes your way," he says. "Much like the rest of the workforce, you need to evaluate multiple options to ensure that your first job is also a good fit."
"Don't be concerned about the hourly rate being the highest, as the rates have gone up plenty since when you first decided to enroll into the hygiene program," he says. "As your career matures, pick one to two offices as anchor employers that will hire you as a permanent, and leave one to two days per week available for temping. That way you can keep a pulse on the industry, leaving you backup options in case the anchor offices don't work out, or if you simply want to augment to your income as a temp one or two days per week."
Carter-Cherelus says her online group and many others like it are a good way for hygienists to connect with one another, to share thoughts and tips, and to learn about new opportunities.
"I post amazing jobs I see in my group that are in a variety of settings, such as hospital, mobile, remote, nursing homes, clinical instructor, dental sealant programs, and public health, and I allow others to do the same," she says. "By voicing to our peers what we are looking for in a job, we increase our chances of finding a match because others become aware of what we are looking for. I encourage hygienists to create a LinkedIn profile, have an active updated resume, and to search for available positions in the job search area on that platform as they tend to have the best positions with the most amazing benefits."
With so many opportunities available, dental hygienists today are in the catbird seat. Those who invest in themselves, and those who put in the work to find the right fit, will have it made.
As Stone says of the profession, "If you can find a great dentist, and a great practice, you're in like Flynn."