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Accredited dental technology programs continue to struggle in spite of efforts to keep them afloat
It is no secret that the dental technology industry education system is in dire straights. Enrollment in accredited programs suggests interest in the field is waning, and the fear is that very soon there will not be enough highly skilled laboratory technicians to keep up with the demand for implants, crowns, bridges, and other restorations. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that dental technology programs have been steadily shutting down, leaving only 18 accredited programs in the United States (in addition to 29 non-accredited programs). Without the means to formally train dental technicians, the industry will continue to deteriorate, leaving clinicians looking for alternative means to fulfill their dental technology needs.
Dental technicians are also conscious of the fact that the dental industry as a whole is in a state of rapid change. Production is shifting to a digital workflow, but most prospective laboratory technicians are still spending their time at school learning techniques that, while relevant 30 years ago, are likely to disappear from laboratory manufacturing processes in the near future. With some exceptions, education for budding laboratory technicians has changed very little to keep up with the times. At a time in history when the industry needs graduates steeped in advanced techniques combined with computer-based skills, the schools’ inability to educate their students with the latest technology is extremely troubling to the dental technology industry as a whole.
Without intervention by the dental community, the number of dental laboratory schools will most likely continue to drop, leaving the profession with a need for skilled workers but no means to train them. Laboratory owners are now needed more than ever to champion their profession, raise awareness, support their local laboratory technology school, and ensure that the technicians who come to them just out of school are further educated to make them even more valuable members of the laboratory community. Now is the time to step in and help the education system meet the growing demand for skilled dental laboratory technicians.
The Benefits of a Formal Education
Laboratory technicians who graduate from an accredited dental technology program do not have an easy path. The starting salary is dismal, and often, the two years they spend in school does not give them enough hands-on experience to walk into a laboratory and fit into a high production setting. However, a formal education benefits the students in the long run in that they have a much more solid foundation in terminology, theory, and tooth morphology than technicians that are purely bench-trained. According to Bennett Napier, CAE, executive director of the National Association of Dental Laboratories (NADL), this foundation can be invaluable. “Today, laboratory technicians are dealing with a formally educated, licensed professional as their customer. Dentists, expanded function hygienists, these people have advanced education degrees. While a formal education is not for everyone, it certainly levels the playing field between many laboratory technicians and their customers,” he explains. Napier believes that this level playing field allows the technician to assume the role of a consultant for the clinician, immediately making them more valuable, and potentially increasing their pay rate.
Even though the value of a formally educated dental technician is widely recognized in the industry, the number of technicians who fit that bill is rapidly declining. According to Elizabeth Curran, CDT, RDT, the majority of formally educated dental technicians working in the field today are approaching retirement age, and since the number of accredited schools producing dental technicians is so small, it will only be a matter of time before retirees outnumber new hires. Curran explains that if this trend follows through, having such a low number of formally educated technicians in the field could be disastrous. “If there aren’t enough educated laboratory technicians here in the United States, that work is going to start getting sent to laboratories offshore. Even the high-quality jobs will be sent to master ceramists in Europe,” she says.
“It Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better”
Unfortunately, even though the need for technicians is high, it is extremely likely that the situation will deteriorate even further before it begins to improve. The 18 remaining accredited programs in the United States are extremely vulnerable, and it is likely that many more are going to fall before the industry decides to take action. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better,” says Napier. “Factors such as cost, budget cuts, low academic support, and low enrollment can all lead to programs getting shut down.” Curran agrees with Napier, and she believes the problem may be that the number of schools that have already closed down have yet to register as a true crisis in the eyes of the industry. “It’s a slippery slope, and it worries me to think that as an industry we may not act until the number of accredited programs are in the single digits,” she says. There are many challenges facing dental technology schools, many of which have been issues for years, and any one alone may be enough to end a program for good.
One of the main reasons dental technology programs get shut down is the cost. Barbara Warner Wojdan, the chairperson of The Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology says, “Dental laboratory technology programs are expensive to operate and the demand for technicians is not as high as it is for hygienists or assistants. This leaves many dental technology programs in a precarious position, as it gives deans an easy target to cut an expensive program with relatively low enrollment,” explains Wojdan.
Of the 18 dental technology programs left in the United States, many are associated with a larger educational institution. This often leaves them at the mercy of budget cuts that affect the school as a whole, but do not necessarily have to do with the dental technology program. Dene LeBeau, the owner of LeBeau Precision Aesthetics, explains that dental technology programs are often on the radar of budget decision makers because of the great costs associated with running the program compared to other disciplines. “Dental laboratory programs need to replicate a dental lab in the real world, and those costs are exponentially higher than a purely academic program like English or math,” he explains.
Currently, with the rapid digitalization of dentistry and the ever-advancing technology available to the dental laboratory, costs are not likely to decrease, but continue to grow. New technology comes with new equipment, new materials, as well the need for instructors that understand this new technology inside and out.
In the case that an educational institution has to make cuts, dental technology programs are also at risk because of their lack of visibility. If an educational institution must cut a program, they are more likely to choose one where few people will notice its absence. That is why it is imperative that dental technology schools take the initiative in making themselves visible not only to potential students, but also to their administration and the school community at large. Nick Manos, CDT and professor at the New York City College of Technology (NYCCT), is a firm believer that dental laboratory programs must take steps to be recognized by the greater educational community. “It is not enough to be outspoken in our profession. People in the dental community know that laboratory technicians exist and are appreciative of the work that we do for them. That’s not the issue. It’s within our own educational institutions. It’s making sure that when a new president, dean, or provost comes in that we introduce ourselves and impress upon them the importance of the dental technology program.”
Laboratory schools are not just aware of their lack of visibility in their institutions, but also among the population as a whole. Without a full class of enthusiastic students, programs are sure to fold. Manos explains, “There are more than 200 specialties in healthcare. Everyone knows about dentists, doctors, nurses, hygienists, but due to our profession’s behind-the-scenes nature, not a lot of college-aged students are aware of dental technology as a career option.”
Too Much to Learn, Too Little Time
Dental technology is a rapidly growing field, and another obstacle that many schools are encountering is that there is simply not enough time in their 2-year programs to cover everything that the students need to know before they begin work in a laboratory. Newer technologies, like CAD digital scanning and design are slowly working their way into school curriculums, however, these new courses are often offered at the expense of other courses, which are edged out due to time restrictions. This also puts students at a disadvantage when they graduate.
Many dental technology schools are taking the initiative to enhance their own curriculums to stay relevant and teach students the skills that will be most useful in the current marketplace. Some have instituted mandatory intern or externships. Renata Budny, CDT, MDT, and a professor at the NYCCT, says that the school’s externship program has a significant impact on their students. “Our students participate in an externship program between their first and second year while enrolled in Restorative Dentistry program. We usually place them in a dental office with an in-house laboratory, giving them the opportunity to experience how the technicians and clinicians interact. The combination of a clinical and laboratory experiences gives them a very positive perspective, and they always come back paying more attention and wanting to learn more than they ever did before experiencing day-to-day operation in the field,” she explains.
Another way that dental technology schools can improve their programs is through partnering with similar programs in the same educational institution. The benefits that come from a partnership are two-fold. First, if two programs require the same courses, such as if both the dental hygiene and dental technology programs require that students take tooth morphology, partnering these programs is seen as economical by the school’s administration. That makes them more valuable and less likely to be cut if there are budget issues. The other benefit stems from the fact that students in similar fields will get to know each other and start building the types of relationships that will be invaluable to them when they start working in the dental industry.
While the schools are working hard to update their programs and give dental technology students an education that will ensure their success in the industry, the community as a whole must make it a top priority to support the handful of programs that remain. It is only with the help of laboratory owners, manufacturers, and other players in the industry that these programs will continue to exist.
Individuals already established in the laboratory profession should be particularly invested in the proper education of future technicians, as these students are their future colleagues. One way that established laboratories could help their local dental technology programs is through opening up their laboratory to students, either as a place for intern or externships, or as simply a field-trip destination. Dene LeBeau is especially involved in his local technology school, serving as a member on their board, donating equipment, and offering students internship opportunities. “We need lab owners to be involved, and it is up to us to reach out to these programs and offer our assistance,” he says.
LeBeau also believes that laboratory owners should be taking initiative in recruiting young people to the profession. Even if there are no local dental technology education programs, laboratory owners can reach out to high schools to give presentations about the profession and increase its visibility amongst students who are looking to pursue a technology-based career. LeBeau notes that with the current state of the United States economy, people with two-year college degrees are being hired more often than people with four-year college degrees. “It’s a crime that most high schools do nothing but tell students that they absolutely must go to a four-year school, and then once that student graduates, all he or she has is debt and a piece of paper, but not necessarily a job. Right now we need dental technicians. While the initial pay rate may be low, they will be hired and they will have a job.” LeBeau adds that as the field continues to expand technologically, it will become more and more appealing to the young students who are already extremely technologically savvy. “Dental technology is a profession made for today’s youth, if only they knew the option existed,” he says.
Manufacturers can also have an overwhelmingly positive impact on dental technology schools. Through donating equipment and materials, the manufacturers ensure that the students are learning with the best technology the field has to offer. “Manufacturers should know even though they are giving products and materials away for free, this is not a one-way street,” says Nick Manos of the NYCCT. Manos stresses that working with manufacturer-donated materials is mutually beneficial, and there is a very specific reason why:
“You always remember your first!” he laughs. “If students are trained in CAD/CAM for the first time on a certain system, they will remember that system for the rest of their lives. The same goes for materials. If the first wax a student uses is from a certain company, then the propensity for buying that particular brand or material will continue going forward in life. We almost never have problems getting materials or even complex machinery from manufacturers, because they understand that we’re giving them a free marketing opportunity, and giving them a chance to invest in the people who will be buying their products down the road.”
Another way that manufacturers are able to help dental technology schools is to send speakers or trainers to talk with the students. Daniel Alter, another professor at the NYCCT, believes that when an industry leader comes in and talks with technology students and gives them encouragement, they are motivated to excel in the field. “When they listen to a leader in dental technology speak, the idea of being successful in this challenging industry is no longer far-fetched. There is someone real, someone who went to dental technology school just like them, who is now an industry leader. That inspires them, and they always perform better after someone comes to speak,” says Alter.
Luckily, dental laboratories are not alone in their quest to remain up-to-date. A number of organizations in the field offer laboratories grants and other programs that give them access to technology upgrades and the aid of manufacturers. Barbara Warner Wojdan specifically mentions a program run by the Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology (dentallabfoundation.org) that offers keystone grants that allow dental technology programs to apply for funds to upgrade their inventory. “There is a strong weighting to awarding grants to the programs that are innovative and already working to upgrade the technology that their students are using,” says Wojdan. The Foundation is also able to link up manufacturers with programs that have a need for particular materials and equipment.
The future of the dental technology profession is grim if the schools continue to shut down at the current rate. Without programs that consistently produce graduates with a solid foundation in dental technology theory, and who can interact professionally with their highly educated customers, the dental industry will be forced to adapt, and clinicians will have fewer and fewer choices when it comes to getting their complex cases produced. It is truly up to the laboratory community as a whole to step up and start reaching out to their local schools and offering aid, whether that be in the form of equipment, tours, internship opportunities, or even just expertise. If there are no local dental technology schools, laboratories can make the public more aware of the profession, hopefully increasing enrollment in the few programs that still exist. One thing is certain—if the laboratory community does nothing, the schools will continue to die off. Dene LeBeau insists that current laboratory owners must take initiative NOW, and start making moves to help these programs. “Attitudes are contagious, and if we all go out there and start working to make something happen, it’s going to happen,” he says. “Once we gain some momentum, we will be unstoppable.”
NYCCT’s Upcoming CAD/CAM Program
According to Daniel Alter, CDT, MDT, and a professor at the New York City College of Technology (NYCCT)’s Dental Laboratory Technology program, one of the greatest challenges in the dental laboratory industry is keeping up-to-date with all of the current technology. “CAD/CAM in particular is a niche that is growing rapidly, and a significant share of the larger laboratories are going completely digital. For dental laboratory students, it is crucial that they are familiar with this technology when entering the job market,” he says. Currently, Alter is in the process of developing a
CAD/CAM program for the NYCCT, as he believes making his students well-versed
in CAD/CAM is the best way to give them
a step up in the laboratory marketplace.
Alter’s vision for this program is ambitious, and requires a huge amount of support from his administration, fellow dental laboratories, and nearby manufactures to execute properly. “We want every student to have access to their own individual PCs where they’ll either be able to scan or download digital scans and impressions, and then we will walk them through a series of different designs so that they’ll learn how to manipulate the digital models in a variety of ways and prepare each case for manufacturing,” he describes.
While the program has not yet officially launched, Alter and his colleagues at the NYCCT have already been incorporating as much CAD/CAM and digital dentistry as they are able into their existing courses, aiming to prepare their students for the new, digital, arm of the dental technology profession. This is something that Alter would like to see all dental technology schools insert into their programs. “I think to remain relevant and to be able to attract students and produce quality students that can become leaders in our field, we need to embrace current technology. I certainly hope that other programs will follow suite and have a designated CAD/CAM program for all of their students to be able to better themselves and become more proficient,” says Alter.
Check out an exclusive Q&A with NYCCT Professors Manos, Budny, and Alter at:
Dental Technology Students Share Why They Love the Lab
Sometimes it is easy for the laboratory technicians and owners to forget that they were once students of the dental technology trade. However, the enthusiasm and ingenuity of young, aspiring technicians is something that long-established professionals should always be conscious of, as these are the people who will be the face of the industry in years to come. A few dental technology students shared with Inside Dental Technology what drew them to the laboratory profession,
and why they love it.
“Dental technology is a perfect fit for me. I love to work with my hands, I can work at my own speed, and I can be as good as I want to be, so long as I dedicate myself to my work.”
Jaleel Bolden, Second Year Dental Technology Student
“I was always interested in pursuing the arts, and dental technology is one of the best and most useful ways to do this. People need this type of work done, it’s essential and it’s helpful. The fact that I can use my creative abilities to help people makes dental technology a very worthy way to use my time and creative energy.”
William Knox, Second Year Dental Technology Student
“It’s all about helping the patients. By being able to restore a functioning smile, and giving them their confidence back to fulfill their day-to-day activities, such as helping them eat, and interacting with others. Thus, knowing how much I will be able to truly help patients is what makes this profession so worthwhile.”
Avindra Lal Maharaj, Second Year Dental Technology Student