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Filling the Bench: How to Find, Train, and Retain Lab Technicians in Today’s Competitive Market


How can dental labs recruit and retain their talent? We look at how labs can fill the bench, train it, and keep it full.

Filling the Bench: How to Find, Train, and Retain Lab Technicians in Today’s Competitive Market


Hiring new lab technicians in this hyper-competitive job market can be challenging. So let’s take a look at how labs can recruit new talent and retain the talented team members they already have.

Employers weathered a problematic recruitment environment in 2022 and should expect more challenges in 2023. Harvard Business Review predicts a lot of competition to recruit talent, tired employees, and more cost-controlling pressure—all under the shadow of a looming economic downturn.1

HBR identifies trends that will help organizations be more successful. These include the following: 1

  • Providing internal talent mobility, upskilling (additional training) opportunities, and leveraging new employment methods, including gig work
  • Increasing flexibility around working and employee experiences for all workers, including frontline workers
  • Hiring people who have the right skills but maybe not the experience
  • Enhancing managerial training and redefining and reprioritizing middle-management goals
  • Increasing support for work-life balance, paid time off, and mental health programs
  • Improving support for ongoing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives
  • Increasing support for social skill development for all workers, including employee autonomy, straightforward messaging on the company purpose, and, well, fun

So what does that mean for dental labs? The same thing it means for everyone. Getting the best people means looking in new ways for talent and addressing the employee experience earnestly to make prospective lab employees an offer they can’t refuse.

Apex Dental Lab Group’s Tom Love, director of implantology and technical education, says most people labs want to recruit are employed at another lab. As a result, many labs use recruiting firms or other outside resources to attract these employees from their current lab to the new one.

However, employed lab technicians are a finite resource, so dental labs are getting more creative. Love says using local high schools and community colleges is another effective recruitment tool.

“Most high schools in the country now have CAD/CAM programs, which they never had before. So in a couple of the communities that we’re in, we have a partnership where we let them come into the lab and show them that we do this stuff for real,” Love says. 

Love says the relationship with the local community schools is like a co-op or a mini pipeline. Some students aren’t looking to go to college but are looking for a career. If they like designing things on a computer but don’t know what they could do with that in the real world, they might see a dental lab operation and find a path for themselves. Apex’s lab in California has 6 employees from that program.

“We get 1 to 2 each year out of this program. Some will stay, and we have some that have been here as long as 15 years,” Love says.

Love says they farm graphic design programs at the community college level because the students are skilled with computers and understand how to work with them. Love says it’s also essential to keep an eye out in your community. Many people you might not at first consider a lab technician might be an excellent fit—food service workers, baristas, grocery store employees.

Love says attitude and culture should be critical characteristics to look for when searching for new employees. Then train them how to work in the lab.

“One of our last hires here in California was a gentleman who worked in the fast food industry. He now runs our 3D printing department. He loves it, and it was a great change for him,” Love says. “We hired him 100% because of his attitude.”

“If you have a barista that you love and is very personable and you think they would do great at the bench, talk to them. Get them into your lab,” says Marybeth Starr, head of brand promise for Harvest Dental Products.

Starr also uses local high school programs and community colleges to generate interest in the dental lab industry. For example, she does a career day at a local high school and shows a video about the dental lab industry and what’s possible.

“These are kids that might not want to go to college. So I tell them, ‘Here’s a great trade that you can start at the ground floor and you can work up to owning your own business,’” Starr says.

Starr says hiring managers should leverage the network among lab technicians. Technicians from different labs talk a lot; when there is an opening at yours, see if any of your technicians know of someone who’s looking.

“They are going to be the first to talk to their buddy about coming over to work with you,” Starr explains.

Moreover, Starr thinks the dental lab industry could use more publicity. As a niche community, many people don’t know it exists. Starr says when she explains how she makes the products that make the teeth to her friends and family, many say, “I thought the dentist did that.”

“We are a tiny community,” Starr says. “So the more we can spread the word, the better it is for our work community.”

Training the Bench

Now that you have hired employees, including many who have never worked in a dental lab or, in some cases, anywhere, you need to train them. It is essential to develop a comprehensive training program for these new people. New hire training has a few characteristics that improve effectiveness, as follows: 2

  1. Involve your existing team in what should be in new-hire training, ideally from your key employees who understand what the job needs and what gaps might exist in the current program.
  2. Create an ongoing, task-oriented, customizable program assigned to a performance standard instead of a fixed time spent training with regular updates.
  3. Train for team or company culture in addition to the basics. Fitting into the company culture is essential to onboarding, especially for employees entering the workforce.
  4. Accommodate different learning styles—visual, hands-on, or reading—to give new team members the best chance at success.
  5. Recruit your current team members with excellent leadership skills to be involved with onboarding and training new team members.

Love says the change to hiring for attitude rather than skill significantly impacted the lab’s culture, especially regarding simplifying training. Ignoring these soft skills was not giving them the culture they wanted, which is an essential value at Apex.

So now in the hiring process, the hiring manager takes the candidate around to meet the team to see if the candidate is a fit for the whole team. Using a positive attitude as a guidepost for hiring has made things easier for the lab regarding training.

“If you get someone with a can-do attitude that’s positive, that’s eager, that wants to learn more, they’re almost infectious in your environment,” Love says. “If they do, man, it’s easy because the whole team will help train them.”

Love says they get new hires with little to no dental lab experience started on training with PTC Dental, whose program teaches form, function, and shapes of teeth as the foundation of training for inexperienced lab technicians. They learn the same vocabulary as the rest of the team, so when they starts talking teeth, everybody understands the discussion, Love says.

Starr agrees that there is an enormous amount of free education offered right now among manufacturers, distributors, and dealers. YouTube has videos, recorded classes, and webinars that can help train inexperienced technicians.

“There’s a lot of great resources out there,” Starr says. “You could bring somebody in that has zero knowledge about the dental community and you could sit them at your bench with your best technician and teach them on the job."

Upskilling the Bench

A term you hear in business these days is upskilling, which means enhancing an employee’s current ability with new ones. Unlike reskilling, which is teaching someone to move into an entirely new role, upskilling is all about improving the employee’s knowledge and experience to make them more versatile in the organization.3

However, as Forbes points out, versatility isn’t the only benefit of upskilling; it’s reducing employee turnover. Pew Research Center indicates that people leave an organization because they do not have an opportunity to advance. Other research supports this, suggesting that employees leave also because they feel there isn’t enough career development where they are.4

Hanging on to staff by providing upskilling opportunities overcomes losing employees to turnover and builds an internal talent pipeline. Recruiting internally saves the costs associated with bringing in external talent. Moreover, learning new skills increases employee job satisfaction and boosts productivity.3

Starr is an advocate for upskilling. Once you have a technician started with the basics, Starr says, you can begin to cross-train them. For example, maybe the lab starts the new employees with modeling then moves them over to crown and bridge, followed by removables. Then a lab can train them in CAD/CAM design.

“The more knowledgeable you make your team, the better off you are,” Starr says, adding that the newer generation craves variety in their work. “Some of these younger kids don’t want to do 1 thing all day long. So they might want to try something new. They’re looking over at the guy at the bench, thinking that job looks interesting.”

“So if you can—and I know now with the employee shortages, it’s difficult—then I would 100% cross-train because that embeds them into your lab life and keeps them part of your lab family,” Starr explains. “If you hire well and it’s somebody that you see eye to eye with in general anyway, then it starts as a good relationship.”

Love agrees most people today want to know their career path. He says the younger generations in the lab have pushed management to tell them what their job might look like in 3 to 5 years. They also ask management why they should stay at the company or what the company has to offer.

Love says giving people a road map or succession plan for moving up in the organization is essential. If your organization works in levels, employees need to know how to progress from 1 level to the next, ie, from everyday technician to supervisor. They want to know that the organization is going to teach them not only the technical skills they need to work in the dental lab but also communication and leadership skills.

Moreover, because many of his recruits are students, they must understand how to work with coworkers. Navigating this transition is essential because the business world, coworker to coworker, differs from the academic world of student to student.

“You have to give them a development plan,” Love says.

The development plan includes education opportunities and not just those inside the lab. Love says Apex likes to introduce employees to the idea of the dental lab community, including conferences like LMT Lab Day Chicago or Lab Day West and programs offered online or in person by vendor partners. Also, Love likes the Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology, which offers hundreds of educational videos for team members.

“The education has to be a key component that you can offer to them to motivate people to become certified dental technicians,” Love says, adding that Apex pays for the certification and yearly licensing fee for its employed Certified Dental Technicians and ensures they meet their annual education requirements.

More Ways to Keep the Bench Full

All employers are looking for ways to retain employees. Firms address employee retention in today’s market by creating mentorship programs, making DEI programs a priority, and leveraging career development officers. Job market conditions also necessitate competitive compensation and employee benefits packages.5

One of the most successful ways that Love says Apex keeps its bench filled is by offering more flexibility. For parents who have kids in school or employees who hate working before 10 AM, Love says Apex tries to accommodate these needs or preferences whenever possible. While Love admits that flexible schedules require a new level of finagling for managers, the flexibility in the workday has made a significant difference in morale.

Apex has early and late shifts in many of its labs and can let supervisors or managers choose what staff will cover these shifts. They have to keep an eye on due dates and time lines to meet the client demands because that’s what ensures the lab gets paid. Love says this flexibility requires a bit of a balancing act, but the benefits are worth it.

“We all have families. We all have lives. And the 1 thing our organization has tried hard to work on is work-life balance. Because if they’re right in their personal life, man, it’s amazing. They’re much better at work,” Love says. “But if they have things going on and they feel really tense, there is stress that’s put on them. So if you can relieve some pain points, they are loyal to the team.”

Apex offers a complete benefits package, including employee health insurance, a 401(k) matching program, paid time off, and sick time. It also provides short- and long-term disability, employee life insurance, and flexible spending accounts. This package is essential for employees, Love says, especially the health insurance, which can be expensive.

“It’s a crucial part for most people, especially those with young families,” Love says.

Starr thinks culture is critical to retention, but not a culture that relies on beanbags, ping-pong tables, and nap pods. Instead, she says, a respectful workplace that allows the sharing of ideas is the best retention tool.

“There’s a lot to be said about working at a company that you admire and respect and feel respects you,” Starr says.


1. McRae ER, Aykens P, Lowmaster K, Shepp J. 9 trends that will shape work in 2023 and beyond. Harvard Business Review. January 18, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://hbr.org/2023/01/9-trends-that-will-shape-work-in-2023-and-beyond

2. Uzialko A. How to develop a new hire training plan. Business News Daily. Updated February 21, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/15839-new-hire-training.html

3. Hall J. Why upskilling and reskilling are essential in 2023. February 24, 2023. Accessed April 13, 2023. https://www.forbes.com/sites/johnhall/2023/02/24/why-upskilling-and-reskilling-are-essential-in-2023/?sh=3ae14fae4088

4. Johnson J. Top reasons why employees quit. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. October 5, 2022. Accessed April 13, 2023. https://www.uschamber.com/co/. Available at: https://www.uschamber.com/co/run/human-resources/top-reasons-why-employees-quit

5. Rosen E. In an uncertain job market, how can companies retain workers?. New York Times. Updated February 25, 2023. Accessed April 10, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/13/business/employee-retention-quitting-companies.html

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