Stay at it

March 27, 2012
Stan Goff
Issue 3

It’s not news that everybody wants to work in a safe environment, one that will allow them to stay healthy and continue doing their thing well on a day-to-day basis. What is new is the reality that even the best-laid plans to retire at a young age may be going by the wayside with the way the economy has changed most peoples’ lives in recent years. Now more and more people are working to an older age and others are making plans to extend their careers beyond what they had originally intended.

It’s not news that everybody wants to work in a safe environment, one that will allow them to stay healthy and continue doing their thing well on a day-to-day basis.

What is new is the reality that even the best-laid plans to retire at a young age may be going by the wayside with the way the economy has changed most peoples’ lives in recent years. Now more and more people are working to an older age and others are making plans to extend their careers beyond what they had originally intended.

The dental laboratory industry is in the same boat, and many of you are taking steps to extend your careers. Staying healthy and fit is critical, but so is staying on top of the latest in terms of education, technology and techniques. If you want a long, happy career, it’s necessary to stay healthy and take advantage of ergonomic products, as well as make sure you and your lab stay relevant in terms of the work you produce. You must also make sure the dentists you serve have no reason to look elsewhere for their lab services.

“Stay busy, stay challenged and stay relevant,” said Laura Sheppard, CDT, TE, MicroDental/DTI Dental Technologies Inc., Sr. Director of Compliance and Regulatory. “If you’re finding yourself slowing your pace, selecting the easier more comfortable jobs, maybe even starting down that road of fearing your memory is weakening, it’s time to move into the ‘un-comfort zone!’ (Click here for an extended version of our Q&A with Laura Sheppard)

“The fastest way to become unnecessary or less valuable is to resist change. Today’s industry is moving fast and technically furious. Learn about what you don’t know. It’s not too late to go back to school, so to speak.”

Look into programs like those offered by the Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology, training programs and the Foundation’s Online Continuing Education Provider Directory. This directory is a full listing of National Board for Certification (NBC)-approved courses that are presented all over the country. The NBC will begin certifying new Implant CDTs this year. Additionally, CDTs are needed to manage and train labs’ technical departments.

Stay knowledgeable

If you’re going to extend your career, take steps to make sure you stay on top of your game. “I haven’t noticed as many lab owners and older technicians retiring as I saw 15 years ago,” said Mary A. Borg, President of SafeLink Consulting. “It seems that the age of 60 may be the old 50 so we will see technicians working to age 70 and older. (Click here for an extended version of our Q&A with Mary Borg and Gary Morgan)

“There aren’t as many sons and daughters of lab owners interested in the business. That age group appreciates a better work/life balance and just aren’t willing to put in all the hours that the older age group has grown up doing. Yes, we will be working with an older workforce, but due to new technology and the change in business models for many dental labs, younger people are more interested in the technology side of the industry, so hopefully that will provide people to take over when all the retirement begins.”

Borg warns that in general the younger workers lack the knowledge of older workers. Therefore a lab owner could consider removing some of the physical stressors and hazards from the aging worker by changing the job duties from physical to mental through mentoring.

Ricki Braswell, CAE, President and CEO of The Pankey Institute for Advanced Dental Education, stresses the importance of continued learning for workers in the lab industry. “As technicians are faced with extending their careers I think that three of the concepts that we introduce our Pankey participants to are applicable: 1) committing to life-long learning; 2) focusing on patient centered dentistry; and 3) creating a work/life balance. The commitment to life-long learning is essential for dental technicians.” (Click here for an extended version of our Q&A with Ricki Braswell)

Lab technicians often are called upon to make informed decisions about the latest technology and materials; therefore it is important that you are knowledgeable about both. The more you know, the more valuable you are to the dentists who you work with. “Dental technicians enjoy being recognized and appreciated for your knowledge and expertise. So do your clients,” Braswell said. “Although there is a decline in what is seen as ‘cosmetic’ dentistry, there is still a demand for restorative dentistry, and the knowledge is key to creating a restoration that meets the patients’ needs.”

Focus on environment

Sheppard, a practicing dental technician since 1979, said there are a number of things-both small and large-that labs can do to protect and extend the careers of their workers.

“Regarding our aging workforce, naturally, we need to keep in mind that health and safety measures protect everyone,” she said. “Anything you can do to keep your workforce working safely and comfortably is a long-term win. Certainly, there are many big and small things that lab owners can do that go beyond OSHA or DAMAS regulations.”

You may never realize the value of a handicap rail in the bathroom or handrails on even two porch steps until you need them. Sheppard herself realized this after foot surgery a few years ago. Labs can dedicate a small private room as an emergency lounge, equipped with a resting area (sofa or lounge chair), running water, electrical outlets and a small locked refrigerator for storage of personal medications, etc.

“This area can be used for employees of all ages; for older employees requiring periodic pulmonary treatments or medications, or for younger nursing mothers requiring privacy,” Sheppard said. “Also, as women age, hot flashes are a fact of life. Of course, we need to accept the things we cannot change, but we can endeavor to make things more tolerable. Lab owners could invest in a small supply of uniform 5-inch personal electric fans to be available upon request. This will facilitate an immediate cool down for the ladies, lowered frustration levels, and an environment void of ‘unsightly fans of every shape and size.’ ”

Protect the eyes

Many workplaces are implementing heart-healthy activities, and that includes everything from weight-loss to smoking cessation programs. Sheppard would like to see dental labs implement vision acuity programs to take a more proactive approach. Many times, product quality control issues are caused by vision-related errors.

“Don’t wait to see if your technicians are losing their vision. Have all technical employees, young and old, examined every year, as a matter of policy,” she said. “Vision loss is such a gradual thing. We assume that the amount of clarity we see is normal.”

Further, every workbench should have ample lighting and microscopes. If they find them helpful, technicians should have magnifier glasses. While technicians have been known to bring in their own lights to enhance their work areas, unfortunately these light are often a of different light grade: incandescent versus fluorescent or halogen. Requiring the retina to process a mixture of these light sources can tire the eyes.

Ergonomic set-up

Lighting/magnification, seating, workbenches and safe/clean work areas are all important parts of running an efficient lab and keeping the technicians’ health concerns a priority.

In some cases the technicians themselves may come up with an idea to improve their work areas. (See “Becker Dental Laboratory techs…” for an example of how a group of employees came up with a healthy, economical seating solution to help them operate more comfortably.)

“For the increased aches and pains your elder employees may be dealing with, plan for an ergonomic assessment study,” Sheppard said. “This will determine if they are in the most optimal work positions.”

Provide stress-relieving mats to stand on and make sure their supplies are not shelved too low or too high to cause injury. Offer grip friendly tools, power tools and long-handled tools to reduce bending. Encourage noise-reducing earplugs to reduce auditory stress.

SafeLink Consulting’s Senior VP Gary Morgan, CDT, suggests labs invest in ergonomic workbenches and take other steps to address the needs of an aging workforce.

“Older employees may experience diminishing physical capabilities that must be addressed so as not to put them at risk of musculoskeletal disorders,” he said. “Ergonomic issues may increase.”

He said accommodations for loss of hearing, sight and motor skills may need to be made to protect older workers. Invest in furnishings that include ergonomically designed workbenches with armrests and chairs with good back support. Morgan suggests seeking information from the following resources: OSHA, National Safety Council, and AARP, which provide resources on the aging workforce and what businesses should consider. AARP has a Workplace Assessment Tool that businesses can use to help with assessing their readiness of dealing with an aging workforce. “Of course, SafeLink Consulting provides health and safety consulting to assist an employer with all safety issues specific to the equipment and materials used in dental labs,” Morgan added.

When it comes to making employees more comfortable, you might also want to consider offering more flexible hours or shifts, Sheppard said. Many times older employees are up early in the morning and stay up late at night. They might not mind extended workdays, appreciating longer lunches or more frequent breaks.

A new older workforce

Sheppard said the industry was prepping for a vacuum created by retiring experts even before the economy soured. The tough times may have forced some of these leaders to stick around longer. But this may have only postponed the much-needed steps to replace some of these lab experts.

“This is not opposed to the way things were pre-downturn,” she said. “Even before the economic decline, industry experts predicted an inevitable brain-drain occurring as our profession’s most experienced technicians would be aging and seeking exit plans. If anything, the ‘crash’ postponed this occurrence. So, even if the retirement plans of our older technicians are delayed, the fact still remains that we will need to secure solid succession planning to replace the eventual loss. With the lack of formal schools teaching dental technology, we continue to rely on the extensive knowledge of a few.”

The future

“Finally, just when you think your age might work against your resume, think again,” Sheppard said. “It’s no secret that our profession is losing its mentors and your skills and experience is sorely needed to train the next generation.”

She suggests these veterans brush up on their Glossary of Prosthodontic Terms and help train others to become CDTs. Don’t be satisfied with sitting in the audience. You would be welcomed to take the stage. “Whether it is in your own lab or for your local lab association, you’d be surprised how young apprentice technicians aren’t necessarily looking for the ‘polished penny,’ ” Sheppard said. “They are looking for the wisdom and knowledge. Make sure you have your credentials and contribute to the next generation.

“Finally, get involved with your industry, outside the space of your building. Either on a national, regional or local level, the NADL could use your help. There are many hard working volunteers serving on a variety of boards and committees, accomplishing great things. Extend yourself to others; the rewards will come back to you ten-fold, giving you a new lease on ‘technical’ life.”

Braswell believes the type of learning laboratory technicians can get from Pankey can help extend careers as well as instantly jump-start careers.
“We don’t teach here at Pankey. Instead we facilitate learning,” she said. “The distinction is important because learning is achieved when people know not just how to do something but also understand why. The understanding of why creates the application of the knowledge.”

The Pankey faculty isn’t comprised of teachers, it is made up of practicing dentists and dental technicians. “Experienced dental laboratory owners and technicians can revitalize their careers by facilitating learning with their dental clients,” Braswell said.” Younger dentists didn’t get much (if any) dental laboratory technology education while in dental school, yet many are curious about what goes into creating a restorative case. This is a great opportunity to establish your expertise and to share your knowledge.”

So regardless of age and current financial situation, most of us in the industry expect to work longer and should take steps to ensure we stay healthy, happy and relevant along the way.