The dental technician, our most valuable tool

March 21, 2012

You would have to be living under a rock if you’re a dental technician and have not heard about, read about, or become involved in the exciting changes our industry is and will be experiencing in the next decade.

You would have to be living under a rock if you’re a dental technician and have not heard about, read about, or become involved in the exciting changes our industry is and will be experiencing in the next decade.

Scanning, CAD/CAM, milling and printing processes are the tools being implemented into the dental technology landscape. But as these processes and tools are being added to the dental laboratory industry I  sense and feel a negative effect on many of the dental technicians who make up the backbone of this industry. My message to them is your future is assured, as long as you develop and promote your strengths.

Speaking from experience

My perspective about dental technicians comes from several places. I have a 24-year career as a technician and business owner specializing in removable prosthetics. My background also includes double duty as a technical product consultant and a lecturer, which not only exposes me to technicians from around the country daily, but also provides opportunities for face-to-face interaction with them on a national level at dental laboratory meetings.

These experiences have allowed me to talk with many technicians on a one-to-one basis, and because of the personal nature of these interactions, I’ve gained a unique insight into their problems and concerns relating not only to products they use, but also how they view our industry and their place in it. These technicians are mostly those who comprise the largest demographic of our profession and the one I belong to, that being the 1 to 5 technician laboratory.

Knowledge is valuable

The recurrent theme that pops up during the course of our interactions is how they will fit into the “technological future” of dental technology. Many are nervous and pensive as they are continually bombarded with articles they interpret as saying that unless they learn computer science, have an engineering degree and embrace owning technology, they are doomed to go the way of the cobbler.

To those who I engage in this conversation with I share this hopeful perspective: Evaluate what you know, not what you’re being told you should know. Dental technicians-those who not only know how to perform the tasks but also why we perform those tasks and understand actions and outcomes of the tasks-are and will be the most valuable commodity our profession has.

Don’t get me wrong, it would be foolish to think that technology is somehow going to go away. But true dental technicians shouldn’t worry about being replaced by a person or piece of equipment that by definition should be considered a tool and not a dental technician or a replacement for knowledge.

Not easily replaced

There are several reasons why I feel comfortable in my position that if you embrace technology at a level you are comfortable with, keep yourself educated and remain practical in the dental part of dental technology, your future is safe.

It is easy to understand why many technicians who have spent years in our field may feel a bit unsettled. I recently read an article published by the ADA that reported dental labs are now hiring technicians with computer science and engineering backgrounds. I do not doubt that people with these backgrounds have been hired to run milling and CAD/CAM in a few labs around the country-you either train or hire qualified people to do so-but do they actually possess dental technology degrees, or comprehensive knowledge of the entire restorative process?

We need to stop defining anyone who works in the laboratory as a technician. Define them as dental workers or step workers, because although specialized, what they contribute is just a step in the overall picture they are now a part of. Can they suggest treatment options, or troubleshoot a case that just hasn’t gone correctly clinically, or present instruction on clinical sequences while a patient sits in the dentist’s lobby or chair? Would a lab owner feel confident with a step worker talking to clients? If you’re a dental technician feel confident in the skill sets that make you able to accomplish those and similar tasks. Then promote those skills to your clients and employers.

Educational advantages

Other reasons dental technicians should be confident they are going to continue to be a sought after asset in our profession in the coming years is the trend of dental schools eliminating the technical education portion of their curriculum, and the removal of the dental laboratory programs off-site of those universities. Not only are they teaching less technology, they have even removed the possible chance of their students ever experiencing exposure to dental technicians and technology-even on an elective basis.

Sadly, but also in a dental technician’s favor, is the dwindling supply of technicians with formal education resulting from the low monetary compensation for attaining a degree and the subsequent closure of all but about 20 dental laboratory programs nationwide. Manufacturers and large dental laboratories do provide education but are only able to selectively educate in regard to the use of products they sell, or personnel they need.

So, if we look at a world filled with less technically educated doctors and dental workers possessing computer and engineering backgrounds instead of dental technology education who are replacing aging, retiring technicians, you can see why dental technicians should stand tall. These forces put educated, trained and experienced technicians in a very good position in the chain of supply and demand.

What this means

In the next 10 years dental technicians can expect many career options for themselves if they choose to take them. The first obvious choice is to position their business as a “niche” laboratory. I despise the term boutique as I think it projects the wrong value. A niche laboratory positions itself on many levels. Those levels include becoming a technical resource for your clients, expertise in esthetics, being proficient in communicating, a strong understanding of comprehensive planning and treatment, and service.

Other career opportunities I suggest are ripe for your technical background could include becoming the educational director for a large lab or lab group, a technical consultant for a manufacturer or laboratory group, or a laboratory department manager. Whatever you decide to do with your expertise, never forget the title of dental technician with the education and experience that it carries is still the backbone of our industry, and it can only continue to grow in importance.