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We have always been in a quandary about how best to tackle the education of technicians in this industry. Some argue that what works best is the old World War II industrial social contract of on-the-job, allowing those with initiative to ascend the ladder of succession to higher-paying positions or even business ownership.
Others vehemently insist that a formal education paves the path to best practices technical knowledge and skills and ultimate success in this business. Regardless, it would appear that neither stand-alone methodology is working with any large degree of success today. The numbers of dental technicians entering the profession, or graduating from accredited programs, and working in laboratories across the United States continue their descent with no end in sight and the numbers of laboratories still in business are following a similar path.
Some say the economy is to blame; others point to offshore as the culprit; and still others cast an eye to technological advances that, in some cases, can do the work of entire departments of technicians. One thing that everyone can universally agree on is that the downward pricing pressure being brought to bear on the industry as a whole is making it very difficult for many businesses to remain competitive and grow. For those businesses that are prospering, the challenge and recurring complaint by owners is in finding knowledgeable and highly qualified labor.
The truth is that the dental laboratory profession, in large part, is caught in a time warp. We have an education system with a standard, mandated curriculum that teaches young, eager computer-savvy students how to handcraft a metal-based restoration. After two years honing that craft, the graduate discovers that the businesses in the industry large enough to add the overhead of a new employee are impatient, high production operations steeped in technology and paying a new entry-level hire fast-food wages. Even if the graduate should pull up those boot straps and survive to ascend to managerial levels, the thought of leaving the security of a steady pay check to open a business today is not like the old days when a ceramic brush, porcelain palette, and a furnace were the only financial investments needed to hang an “Open for Business” sign on the door.
Contrary to the common belief, our industry is not invisible to the public because it is the best-kept secret of an ego-driven dental community. This industry is invisible because most young people and their life coaches do not view investing in an education for a profession that pays rock-bottom entry level wages and that is devoid of advanced degrees and specialties as a wise career choice.
Future rapid advancements in manufacturing and clinical technologies will demand even more complex business models that require, at their core, a technologically advanced workforce with an ever higher degree of clinical and technical knowledge. If we do not, as a dental industry, invest in the future of dental technology, then outsiders wait in excited anticipation to reap the rewards of what is a highly profitable industry.