How to make the money you want

One of the most frequent questions I hear from dental hygiene students is, "How much money can I make?" or "What is the average salary for a dental hygienist?" Even experienced hygienists want to maximize their potential earnings power and job security. Ironically, I learned the answers by leaving the dental industry and starting an entirely new career in floral design.

Feb 1st, 1999

Janet R. Hagerman, RDH, BS

One of the most frequent questions I hear from dental hygiene students is, "How much money can I make?" or "What is the average salary for a dental hygienist?" Even experienced hygienists want to maximize their potential earnings power and job security. Ironically, I learned the answers by leaving the dental industry and starting an entirely new career in floral design.

I was studying flowers in Hawaii when the employees of a major grocery store chain went on strike. Asking if they were striking for more money (they were making an incredible $13 an hour for bagging groceries!), they said no. They were striking for job security.

What is job security? Today with downsizing, layoffs, and company buyouts, job security seems to be impossible. I`ve learned that there is only one true form of job security, and that is to be good at your job. Make sure that you are an extremely valuable employee. Valuable employees create their own job security. No one gives it to you!

A past employer once told me, "Janet, you`re the best hygienist I`ve ever known ... and the worst employee!" My personal life was distracting and punctuality had become a problem for me. No amount of superior clinical expertise on my part could compensate for the inconvenience and hardship I caused to my patients and team members by constantly being late to work. My job security suffered seriously. Simple concepts like punctuality and reliability are tremendously important in creating your job security.

Rena Haas is a dental hygienist who has created her own job security by working for offices who need temporary hygiene help when a regularly employed hygienist is absent. In her July 1998 letter to RDH, she wrote about how often she rescues dental offices that get stood up by their own hygienists at the last minute. She laments the unprofessionalism of employed hygienists that don`t show up for a day of scheduled appointments. In my own practice, I`m amazed at the hygiene applicants who make an appointment for an interview and then never show up! This lack of responsibility and professionalism destroys any concept of job security.

As a young hygienist, I never concerned myself with the financial aspects of the practice. I seldom worked on commission and never had production goals. I thought just doing a good job clinically would warrant my paycheck and my job security.

After a career change as a floral designer and owner of my own company, I became acutely aware of income, production, expenses, and how efficiently time was spent. Expenses always were paid before paying me and sometimes, instead of me. When I returned to dentistry, it was with a renewed respect for hygiene down time and broken appointments resulting in lost production. A hygienist that understands the importance of efficient scheduling and works toward fulfilling production goals will be of great value to that practice.

As dental hygienists, we are sometimes accused of being prima donnas. At my most recent dental office, I was thanked for cleaning up my own instruments. The prior hygienist had left them in the sterilization room for someone else to process, expecting them to miraculously reappear cleaned and sterilized. This prima donna attitude and lack of team support was not only unprofessional, it destroyed her job security. She got fired, and I got her job.

As hygienists, we are the most well educated members of the dental team after the doctor. We have a responsibility to set a good example by being a professional and supportive team member. This is called teamwork and it is crucial to our success and our job security.

What is teamwork? Teamwork is lending a helping hand, even when "it`s not my job." It`s communicating honestly and compassionately with other staff members; not supporting negative gossip in the workplace; praising and congratulating other staff members for a job well done; and thanking them for their help. Teamwork assures that you are valuable not only to your employer, but to your fellow workers as well. Helping to establish and maintain a happy work place is another good way to create job security.

When I returned to the dental industry after a six-year absence, I didn`t know how to place sealants or make bleaching trays, didn`t know what STM was, and couldn`t even remember how to take an impression. I had a lot of catching up to do! Fortunately, continuing education is alive in our profession and very available. Technology changes so fast, and dentistry continues to change and evolve by leaps and bounds. It`s exciting and challenging to keep up with this growth. It`s vital to continually expand your education. Continuing education is vital not just to fulfill your yearly license requirements, but to enable you to provide the highest quality services to your patients and to ensure your value as a highly competent and currently educated employee.

I`ve always liked working with people, and I`ve felt a strong commitment to patient education. However, learning how to reach patients - instead of preaching to patients - is an extremely important part of the process. I`m afraid a lot of my former patient education was of the preaching variety. It was well intentioned, but I sometimes wonder how effective I really was.

My expectations are different now. I`m here to explain, support, encourage, and listen. When patients comment that, "She`s really great" or "I want to see Janet again," or, even better, "Hey, Doc, she deserves a raise!" I have to chuckle. It makes me feel great to know that I`ve had an impact on and made a connection with that person. I also know that because those patients value me, my employer will appreciate me for the value I give to our mutual patients.

How much is an average salary? Do you want to make an average salary? Are the skills and values that you bring to the workplace average or excellent? Will you have job security? You will have it only if you create it for yourself!

How much money can you make? It all depends on how much value you can create for yourself!

Editor`s Note: Free by fax from the author is: "Ten Tips for Hygiene Harmony," a list of great ways to create harmony in your hygiene department. To get your free copy, simply fax your letterhead with your name and the words, "Ten Tips," to (404) 256-7908.

Janet R. Hagerman, RDH, BS, is a clinical dental hygienist, author, and speaker. Contact her at (404) 255-1135.

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