Managing Critical Labor Shortages
How to attract and retain valuable employees
Daniel Alter MSc, MDT, CDT
The world has experienced a significant shift that has exacerbated critical labor shortages for many companies both large and small since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. While hiring actually has outpaced resignations since November 2020,1 the labor force has become more selective, meaning staffing can still be extremely challenging despite the overall large labor pool. Dental laboratories are certainly feeling the impact and are finding they need to deviate from traditional ways of thinking and enact different strategies to attract and retain their talent. "The labor shortage crisis started long before the COVID-19 pandemic," says Bob Savage, CFO of Drake Dental Laboratory. "The pandemic somewhat accelerated it because people were jarred into recalibrating their perspectives on what they want out of work/life balance, which is to better their lives." In some cases, that meant working from home or changing careers.
Meanwhile, employers had to make some very tough decisions, including layoffs and terminations, that significantly hurt employees' feelings and overall morale. Many felt their companies were supposed to take care of them and had failed in that obligation. "Unfortunately, many employers had to prioritize their company's survival," Savage says. "A significant number of them hired back their employees soon after, but it forced people to really consider, ‘Do I love what I'm doing? Do I love where I work?' People had an opportunity—good, better, or indifferent—to sort of reevaluate their lives."
Staffing, of course, has always been particularly challenging in healthcare when compared with other industries. "Since COVID, we have seen some dental professionals exit the workforce altogether, across various role types," says John Murphy, Vice President of Talent Acquisition for The Aspen Group, "and the people who are still willing to work want to work less. People re-prioritizing has been one of the primary impacts of COVID. Younger generations want to work less and make more money. Older generations do not expect to make more, but they still want to work less." To further exacerbate the situation for dental laboratories, the dwindling number of dental schools in the US is not producing enough graduates to keep up with demand. "This has been an ongoing situation since before COVID," says Oscar Galvis, MS, MDT, CDT, of NuCrown Dental Laboratory. "Since schools have been closing and the profession as a whole is mostly unknown to the general public, attracting potential talent is very difficult."
Meanwhile, other industries that compete for similar talent pools have increased their compensation offerings—both salary and benefits. "In the dental laboratory industry, our usual starting wages perhaps have not been where they needed to be, and entry-level wages have significantly increased in sectors such as construction, fast food, big box stores, etc," says Jim Caruso, co-president/owner of Ottawa Dental Laboratory.
These various factors have forced dental laboratories to get creative in their recruitment and retention efforts. "We ramped up our recruiting efforts for entry-level prospects," Caruso says. "We hired a full time Talent Acquisition Specialist who focuses on bringing new applicants into our laboratory through several different outlets. We bring in the qualified applicants and test them in areas that can relate to our laboratory's openings. The more candidates we see, the better we will do. Additionally, over the past 12 to 18 months, we have updated our wage and compensation scales. This has allowed us to attract not only more people, but also a slightly higher caliber of applicant."
Appealing to Talent
Recruitment efforts are a focus for dental laboratories around the country who compete for the same talent pool, but the mechanism has changed from historical methods. More laboratories are using recruiting professionals—sometimes even for internal recruitment or creating onboarding/training processes. "We have someone who recruits for all eight of our locations, covering seven cities," Caruso says.
Of course, identifying talent is only the first step; getting those people into the building requires creating positions that are appealing to them. "First, look at the compensation landscape; who are the other major employers in that region?" says Brian Forman, a Benefits and Compensation Manager with pladis Global. "Who is competing for the same talent? What does their whole compensation and benefit structure look like? Make sure that you are staying competitive from a talent acquisition standpoint." Beyond compensation and benefits, many promising candidates are seeking positions that offer high career trajectories. "The No. 1 thing employees and potential employees are looking for is continuous growth and development," Murphy says. "They want to know that there are opportunities to not only grow their skills and learn, but also increase their income. Culture is the other piece. They want to know that they are coming to work for an organization whose values and beliefs are aligned with theirs. They want to do meaningful work while empowering their own success."
Culture goes both ways. Dental laboratories historically have hired based on specialized skill sets, but that, too, is changing along with dental laboratory owners' and managers' mindsets. Caruso says most of his laboratory's hires have come from outside the dental industry. "We bring in people from the general labor pool and immerse them in 2 to 3 weeks of training to learn dental terminology, materials, and technology," he says. The candidate's overall attitude and quality of character have become perhaps just as desired as technical skills. "Unlike in years past, it seems that laboratories now are hiring based on mindset and attitude of the candidate," says Steven Pigliacelli, MDT, CDT, Co-Owner of Marotta Dental Studio. "Skills can be taught, but a subpar attitude is incredibly counterproductive in a dental laboratory. We look for a specific kind of person." Indeed, the concept that a laboratory can develop the right individual into a competent technician is widespread among various sizes of laboratories. "I don't need skill," Galvis says. "All I need is potential and good attitude. Once I find that potential, we nurture the person and share in their journey of professional growth."
Even with a larger labor pool, recruiting capacity is critical. "When we are recruiting internally," Forman says, "we have more control over whom we hire. We also can spend more time with these candidates and make sure that we are hiring the right person. When recruiting externally, we really need to do our due diligence."
Once the right people have been identified and hired, developing them into valuable employees is the next step. The best candidates with the greatest longevity and trajectory often are looking to expand and grow their skill sets, and ultimately, their careers. "We have some really good people in our laboratory to train new hires," Pigliacelli says. "We bring in novices to train and explore their inner artists. They start by doing one aspect well, and then a second, and so on."
Experienced technicians should not be forgotten, of course, and a strong path for growth and development is often what they seek. "We have found many candidates from laboratories that were bought out by larger corporations," Pigliacelli says. "They worry for their futures. They also appreciate opportunities to see their work to completion. Many people simply take great pride in their work and want to do better." Ultimately, these candidates want to belong to a team or a family environment, where they feel safe and supported with an opportunity to grow, especially during these uncertain times. "We made a promise to our original team members who came back from COVID: ‘If you're with us, we are with you,'" Pigliacelli says. "They are all still here because of that. They made the sacrifice to support us in difficult times and we all came back together. They now have our commitment that we're going to keep them employed—and taken care of."
The supply of those experienced laboratory technicians is sparse, however, so training remains critical. Many laboratories have found an influx of talent in the Information Technology (IT) space, as these new hires have the digital acumen and are excited to enter a profession that was mostly closed off to them in the past. "Denture technicians, in particular, hardly exist anymore," Murphy says. "There are perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 people left in the US who are skilled enough to fabricate a denture from start to finish. Because of this, several years ago, we built a training program that taught people the analog denture skill set. Now, as the technology has evolved, we have focused on digitally scanning and 3D printing prosthetics. That changes the skill sets that are needed, broadening the available labor pool because you can teach people the skills to be a digital technician in probably 15 weeks, as opposed to a year or more. Also, if we do not have a technician in a particular office, we can digitally scan patients and send those scans to our remote network to be designed by one of our designers. Then those designs are 3D printed, assembled, and polished in our centralized, state-of-the-art manufacturing center and sent back to the local office. It creates efficiencies that improve the patient experience."
Even with a promising career trajectory, culture remains key. Understanding and empathizing with the employee provides for a deeper level of care. "We also need to ensure that people do not have bad experiences," Galvis says. "We had one technician who had left another laboratory after only a week, solely because of the environment there; the way that they were treated was aggressive and almost caused them to leave the profession, but now they are one of my star technicians. Many of my lead technicians have come from places where they were not treated well, and our laboratory provided them with an opportunity to grow and feel accountable for their own success. It is really important that we nurture heavily. They may not have the talent at the beginning. It takes patience, and as long as you treat them well, you will retain your employees and they will work because they want to work." In the long run, Galvis emphasizes, his personal and laboratory goal is to create well-rounded technicians—not a denture technician or a crown-and-bridge technician—who can strive to succeed in order to provide best-in-class service to the laboratory's clientele.
Others have gotten creative in meeting the demands and needs of the current labor market. Murphy, for example, says The Aspen Group has allowed some employees to switch to part-time. "Having two part-time employees instead of one full-time employee can create challenges with respect to supply, but it can also create flexibility in scheduling," Murphy says. "We have leaned on the 4-day work week, particularly for providers, because we knew that was what people wanted and we knew it could help us attract or at least have more conversations with top talent. When you can find the people to do that, it works really well."
Setting up a process or mechanism to ensure employee buy-in can be important as well. Ottawa Dental Laboratory has formalized this process. "We treat our employees well and recognize them when we meet our monthly goals," Caruso says. "We have luncheons and celebrations for their successes and incentivize them with gift cards and other rewards. We have a CDT study club that we run monthly, and we pay all the expenses for everyone's education, testing, and renewals; we also have bonuses for anybody who is able to maintain their CDT level every year, and we have employee recognition gifts for everybody at 5-year increments of their employment with us, too." As a third-generation laboratory owner, Caruso also prioritizes the element of family; many celebrations involve family members and fun activities. For example, Ottawa holds an annual Fall Festival. "We partner with all our manufacturing representatives, and they donate gifts to raffle off to those in attendance," Caruso says. "We get bounce houses, bands, food, and more. We welcome the families and friends of our employees. Last year, we had more than 400 people attend." In the winter, Ottawa has a visit from Santa Claus to give gifts to employees' children and grandchildren. These events bear fruit not just in staff retention but also for recruitment efforts. When people visit the laboratory, they are left with a level of curiosity and desire to work there. "A lot of people have applied for a job because a family member works here and they have attended an event," Caruso says. "They say, ‘Wow, that's a really cool company. I want to work here.' We also offer a $500 referral bonus to our employees who refer new hires."
Outside-the-box thinking and attracting talent from both within and outside the dental laboratory profession expands talent options, which is well worth the effort. "The more we can push out information on career opportunities on social media—small videos, etc, that appeal to people on their phones—the more attractive the laboratory will be, especially for younger age demographics that may still be in school," Savage says. "We invite dental assistant programs to tour the laboratory because they have an idea of what a dental laboratory is. Some of the students are intrigued by what they see and decide they would rather work in the laboratory than in the mouths of patients." These are individuals who have an affinity for being in the dental profession but may not have known of the laboratory space as an option; they can provide much-needed talent for a truly win-win situation.
The dental laboratory technology space has dramatically changed with the continuous emergence of digital technologies, efficiencies, and so much more; recognizing and promoting these opportunities will yield greater talent engagements and acquisitions. There is potentially an enormous pool of talent near your laboratory with the desire to engage in a meaningful career in dentistry. A laboratory owner or manager should approach from a perspective of reaping mutually beneficial rewards. It all comes down to communication and empathy, connecting with the right candidate who has potential and a great attitude. After that, it is incumbent on the laboratory to provide them with intensive support in order to achieve their career ambitions. Forman suggests that each laboratory should set up a process for attracting and onboarding new hires that will clearly convey that the laboratory has all the resources they need to perform their jobs effectively, efficiently, and with great pride. "Have town halls monthly or quarterly with staff where everyone meets to discuss any open issues, celebrate successes, and get feedback from employees to make sure that people are having their needs met and that everything we are managing on the back end aligns with those needs," Forman says.
Focus on the candidate for hire and how you may meet their needs; they, in turn, will provide your laboratory and its clientele with their best efforts. "I would rather hire a person who will work with me and grow," Pigliacelli says, "than a person who may be really skilled but is looking for a job rather than a career with us and may end up sabotaging our future together because they are not invested in us or we are not in them." At the end of the day, even though we fabricate dental prosthetics, we are human beings providing services for other human beings, utilizing technology, science, artistry, specialized materials, and more. The future is very bright for the dental laboratory profession, and the labor shortage crisis might very well be the best thing that has happened to the field, as it will usher in new dental laboratory professionals who will help elevate our craft as a whole.
1. Ferguson S. Understanding America's Labor Shortage: The Most Impacted Industries. U.S. Chamber of Commerce website. https://www.uschamber.com/workforce/understanding-americas-labor-shortage-the-most-impacted-industries. Published March 23, 2023. Accessed March 30, 2023.