It’s no surprise to anyone that the dental job market is in a state of flux these days. COVID-19 has really thrown a wrench in everyone’s plans, and feelings about working or returning to work in dental offices span the entire spectrum.
While studies have shown that dental offices are among the safest workplaces due to our familiarity and commitment to sound infection control and personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols, the entire dental workforce has not quite gotten back to the level of engagement we saw before the pandemic. Historically, the dental job market has been cyclical and regional; at times there is an oversupply of dental hygienists in one area while another is experiencing a shortage. Then those trends reverse. Being in an evolving state of flux is normal, and a perfect balance between job opportunities and job seekers is rare and short-lived.
But never in recent history has there been such a universal and significant shortage of dental professionals available to work. As my company, TempStars, has expanded across the US, without exception the message we hear from dental office owners and managers is that it’s harder than ever to find and retain good people. Of course, the dental job market is just as subject to supply and demand forces as any other free market. Given the pervasive shortage of dental professionals and an abundance of dental offices hiring, this is an enviable position to be in for dental hygienists.
But this situation deserves some reflection and caution in navigating this job market. It is worth laying out some important thoughts and perspectives if you’re a dental hygienist looking for work or thinking about making a change.
You have options
Realize that you likely have a lot of options in this job market. If you’re working in an office where you feel disrespected, you can build a sense of confidence and empowerment that you have the option to “vote with your feet.” I enjoy emphasizing great leadership and the importance of building healthy team cultures, but not every dental office owner or manager considers this a top priority.
It’s true that in some job markets, dental offices who place little value on a positive work culture can get away with treating people poorly because there are limited options. But this job market is serving as a wakeup call to dental teams that don’t respect their employees; they’re the ones who are having the hardest time hiring and retaining good people.
If you work in a toxic or otherwise unprofessional environment, the first step is to have a well-thought-out conversation with your manager/owner. Do your best to bring up your concerns and how things could be improved. But if you do not see positive changes, feel confident that there are dental offices with great leadership and cultures looking to hire.
Value the whole picture
There are a lot of factors that add to how you feel about your professional work life. Certainly, one factor is the salary/wage/benefits earned. But it’s important to remember that, while the amount of money you earn matters, it’s not the only factor to consider.
If you’re thinking about changing jobs or are weighing options as you search, it’s critical to think about the whole picture, and office culture is a big part of that. Everyone is looking for a work home where they feel respected, understood, valued, and like they belong.
People spend one third of their time at work with coworkers,1 and it makes for a long, miserable life if you’re unhappy and unfulfilled for that much of your time. Conversely, a positive, supportive, and professional work life makes the day go by enjoyably and leads to a healthier outlook on life. Just be very cautious about chasing an extra few dollars at a new job if your current dental office treats you well and you enjoy working there.
The grass may not be greener
When you go for a job interview, you put your best foot forward. Well, guess what? Dental office owners and managers do the same thing. Of course, it’s possible an office is as great as they claim during the interview, but it’s also possible that cracks may quickly start to show after you start working.
Everyone deserves a respectable hourly rate, and some truly wonderful offices offer great salaries and benefits. But if an office offers rates that are significantly above average, it’s worth wondering why. It is possible they have trouble retaining good people based on their culture and work environment. Be sure to ask a lot of questions during your interview and realize that you might not be the only one embellishing a bit during the interview.
Remember, job markets are cyclical and regional, and while it’s a great time to be looking for work, it’s important to consider your current or potentially new employer. Taking advantage of the job market and asking for exorbitant rates is not setting yourself or the profession up for success in the long term. I’m not saying you should avoid negotiating, but do your research, weigh various options and hourly rates, and consider the whole picture. Be very cautious about squeezing every last dollar out of the office, especially if you think you may have found your work home.
A practice owner or hiring manager might agree to an extremely high rate because they’re in a tight spot, but it’s likely going to set you up for animosity and tension. The office is going to expect you to perform at a superstar level and might actually undermine your ability to do so, just to prove that you’re not worth it. When the job market shifts (and it will), you may be the first one let go. Just be careful and keep your hourly rates fair and within the market range.
Self-reflection is important
I’m a huge believer that a problem may be staring at you in the mirror, but so is the solution. If you’re thinking of making a job change, you’re frustrated with the job market, or you keep bouncing from job to job feeling unfulfilled, it might be time to do some self-reflection. It’s possible you’ve been unlucky, but it’s worth considering that you might be carrying the problem around with you and causing your own frustrations.
Here are a few questions to spark your thoughts. Am I contributing to positive energy in my workplace? Am I highly skilled and committed to great patient care? Do I leave others feeling energized when I speak to them? Do I take the initiative to see how and where I can help out? As a health-care professional, is my focus and intent to serve others? Do I make a commitment to consistently come to work on time and not miss shifts? Give some thought to these questions and if your internal response is “no” to any of them, there might be room for self-improvement and professional development.
I hope this provides some context, insight, and advice to navigating this crazy job market. The takeaway messages are to feel empowered that you’re in demand, and you don’t have to tolerate a toxic and unprofessional work environment. Self-reflect and consider the whole picture when thinking about your work life. Don’t take unfair advantage of the situation because it won’t set you up for success and will contribute to problems for you and our profession in the long term.
Editor's note: This article appeared in the May 2022 print edition of RDH magazine. Dental hygienists in North America are eligible for a complimentary print subscription. Sign up here.
- What percentage of our lives are spent working? Reference. Updated March 24, 2020. https://www.reference.com/world-view/percentage-lives-spent-working-599e3f7fb2c88fca