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Dental hygiene employment woes: A dire need exists for innovation in the recruitment culture

Dec. 24, 2015
Yay! You've graduated from a dental hygiene program and just received your RDH license!

By Andrew Lee, RDH, MBA

Yay! You've graduated from a dental hygiene program and just received your RDH license! You're excited and ready to join a dental practice that will allow you to share what you've learned, while enriching the lives of every patient in your chair with optimal oral health practices. But, how are you going to find this dream job? A better question: How do you plan on being visible to prospective employers to obtain a job? Being a dental hygienist is great, but finding part-time-or especially full-time-work isn't going to be easy because you're now competing with new and seasoned hygienists in an oversaturated industry. Moreover, the current recruitment systems are making it difficult for hygienists to find job placement and stability.

Today's economy holds ever-increasing disorder and uncertainty in dental hygiene careers, and this trend has resulted in a scarcity of employment opportunities for newly graduated and seasoned dental hygienists alike. In the 21st century, the pursuit of dental hygiene is attractive, but comes with the very challenging restrictions placed upon candidates who are bound in an old-fashioned recruitment system that places career security at a great reach.

The hygiene culture

The culture of dental hygiene is comprised of a niche population of individuals; accordingly, there are some defining characteristics of a dental hygienist. But what motivates people to pursue a career in dental hygiene? If you ask a hygienist what they love about the job, they will most likely tell you it's all about the satisfaction and enjoyment.

Hygienists partake in personalized, interactive routines with patients that manifest charm, care, and a comforting nature-a sphere of positivity. For example, they sense the responsibility of ingraining solid principles of good health and nutrition in their patients. They enjoy treating the patient, which results in seeing the direct impact of their work and the smiles that follow. Essentially, there is an intangible feeling of reward at the end of the day, and this is what draws exceptional individuals to this career environment.

Along with the inner passion for positive impact, there are practical factors that make this an attractive career. Dental hygiene is a lucrative career. US News & World Report places the median salary for a hygienist at $70,210; the highest earners earn approximately $96,000. Also, keep in mind that a significant number of hygienists work only part-time and some even move from location to location. The flexibility allows for women hygienists with children to lead both a quality work life and a quality home life (95.8% of dental hygienists are women).

The growing number of opportunities to pursue dental hygiene has showcased the appeal of this career. In the past 25 years, there has been a 65.8% increase (according to the ADHA) in the number of active dental hygiene programs in the country. The increase of RDH presence in the dental industry is excellent in many ways; however, this trend has complicated the dentist-RDH community with a bubble of saturation. In other words, there are too many dental hygienists, and potentially not enough jobs, but currently no way of knowing.

Where to find a job?

There are so many new graduates and well-seasoned professionals looking for the perfect job to suit their lifestyle and work preferences. For example, some want to work only certain days a week, some want to work only in a pediatric office, some want to work anywhere but a pediatric office, etc. In order to find these jobs, RDHs usually fall on in-house staffing agencies and/or online job sites for assistance. Even if these third-party resources can provide the dental hygienist with an opportunity, it isn't likely that it will be a match-eventually leaving both the dentist and the hygienist unhappy after a series of inconveniences.

Each dentist is unique in how they run their practice, as well as how they work with their team. In-house staffing agencies aren't capable of allowing dentists to choose from their available candidates, and therefore, send out any available temp to cover the position. This usually results in a disruption of practice dynamics, production, and dental care philosophy.

In-house staffing agencies unfortunately exacerbate this cycle of inefficiency and inconvenience. One of these disruptions includes the fact that dentists are required to pay excessive surcharges for their temporary candidates and/or a commission from the temporary candidate's paycheck. Another hassle for dentists is that contracts bind job seekers from accepting permanent employment offers, unless the dentist pays the agency a contract buy-out fee that can cost thousands.

This becomes frustrating for dentists who enjoy working with these candidates, while placing a burden on the candidate who is now left seeking work with another dental practice. Lastly, these agencies are only open during business hours, thereby putting the dentist at risk of losing production because a current employee called in sick and an agency representative was unavailable.

Online job sites charge over-the-top prices for mere access to posted resumes and/or to post a job opening. Finding a new employee becomes not only a tedious process for dentists, but also a costly one. When unable to find the appropriate candidate, dentists continue in an endless search, often paying extreme rates to reach out to these candidates. Hiring has become a vicious cycle, repeatedly wiping funds from dentists.

It's important to understand that it takes time, meticulous effort, and energy to build and sustain a professional practice. Today, dentists are forced to spend significant amounts of time wading through piles of resumes. They struggle with cramming interviews and meetings with candidates that do not match the particular needs of their practice into their days. That time lost in a hopeless cause adds up to a great underlying financial opportunity cost-the cost of time that could be spent with patients, filling paperwork, or even just relaxing.

When dentists hire a new temporary hygienist, they usually fol low a specific protocol. They must spend time and effort training the temporary hygienist (or one of their staff will, which usually pulls them away from working). It seems as though in-house staffing agencies and online posting sites just aren't worthwhile anymore.

Dental hygiene serves as 21% of the entire dental industry, so why isn't there a trustworthy platform where RDHs can find jobs? The industry needs a new framework-a streamlined model of efficient interaction that empowers both the dentist and the hygienist. Until then, the future career sustainability of dental hygienists is foggy, as these challenges have yet to be conquered. RDH

Andrew Lee, RDH, MBA, began his career as a dental hygienist in 2006, and since then, has been ensuring the oral health of diverse populations in private practice, at the UCSF School of Dentistry and abroad in underserved countries. With an MBA that incorporates a specialization in health-care management, Andrew sought to alleviate the current stagnation in dental recruitment practices by launching ToothPyk.com, an on-demand dental staffing tool that offers hiring dental practices a faster, easier, and more cost-efficient experience when connecting with available dental auxiliaries for temporary and/or permanent employment opportunities. You can reach him at [email protected] or 415-706-2520.