Stay at it: Expanded interview with Laura Sheppard

March 27, 2012
Stan Goff
Stan Goff

Issue 3

Laura Sheppard, CDT, TE, is Senior Director of Compliance and Regulatory for MicroDental/DTI Dental Technologies Incorporated.

Laura Sheppard, CDT, TE, is Senior Director of Compliance and Regulatory for MicroDental/DTI Dental Technologies Incorporated. A practicing dental technician since 1979, she recently joined the Microdental/DTI Laboratories team where she is advising and implementing Quality Systems. She is very active in the dental technology community currently serving as Chair of the National Board of Certification and is an NADL Trustee. She spoke to DLP for the March 2012 Forward Trends article, Stay at it.

Q: As the employees in the dental industry age, what should lab owners and technicians do differently in terms of health/safety issues, and where can they go for additional information on this?

A: Of course, the best laboratory work environment is one that can demonstrate that they operate within the guidelines of OSHA requirements. Certified Dental Laboratories do this. Additionally, DAMAS certified laboratories follow OSHA guidelines, as well as the FDA’s recommended Good Manufacturing Practices. This means they are audited to insure that they operate a safe workplace and produce a safe product. The best resource for more information on these two certifications is the National Board of Certification for Dental Technology. Their website www.nbccert.org, provides the guidelines needed to achieve these recognitions. A great OSHA resource is SafeLink Consulting services at www.safelinkconsulting.com.

Regarding our aging workforce, naturally, we need to keep in mind that health and safety measures protect everyone. 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 hand rails on even two porch steps until you need them. I realized this after foot surgery a few years ago. Labs can dedicate a small private room to be used 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. 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’. Many workplaces are now implementing heart-healthy activities; everything from weight-loss to smoking cessation programs. I’d like to see dental labs implement vision acuity programs. Sure, many provide easy access to vision assistance. But, why not 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. Vision loss is such a gradual thing. We assume that the amount of clarity we see is normal.

Further, every work bench should have ample lighting and microscopes. Technicians should have magnifier glasses, if they feel it helps them. Many times technicians will complain that they need more light and lab owners see this as a nuisance complaint. How many times have you seen technicians bring in their own lights to enhance their work area? Unfortunately, this is often a different source of light grade; incandescent versus fluorescent or halogen. Requiring the retina to process a mixture of these light sources can also tire the eyes.

Finally, for the increased aches and pains your elder employees may be dealing with, plan for an ergonomic assessment study. 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 ear plugs to reduce auditory stress ambient sounds. Consider more flexible hours or shifts. Many times older employees are up very early in the morning and stay up very late at night. They may not mind extended workdays, appreciating longer lunches or more frequent breaks during the day.

Q: What advice can you offer lab owners and technicians to help extend their careers?

A:  Stay busy, stay challenged and stay relevant. 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’! 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. The Foundation for Dental Laboratory Technology has developed some great training programs and they now have an Online Continuing Education Provider Directory at www.dltfoundation.org. This directory is a full listing of NBC-approved courses that are being presented, all over the country. You can search the courses by title, presenter, location, date, specialty subject and even difficulty level.

If you’re a CDT, challenge yourself with getting your continuing education credits in newer technologies like implants or CAD/CAM, even if you don’t do these processes in your lab. Reach out to other labs in your area that do these processes and ask if you can come in and observe. If you do Implants, be one of the first technicians to become an Implant CDT! That’s right; the NBC will begin certifying new Implant CDTs this year. If you’re not already a CDT, it’s the perfect time to achieve this or to expand your areas of certification. CDTs, especially holding multiple certifications, are highly regarded by progressive lab owners. CDTs are needed to manage and train their technical departments.

Finally, just when you think your age might work against your resume, think again. It’s no secret that our profession is losing its mentors and your skills and experience is sorely needed to train the next generation. Brush up on your Glossary of Prosthodontic Terms and help train others to become CDT’s. 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’. 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.

Q: Have you noticed a more aging customer base?

A: As my eyes get older, everyone else looks younger! Actually, I don’t think labs sense the prolonged presence of the senior set. Of course, our customers are not unlike us. The last five years have posed economic challenges that have altered many lives and demolished the best laid plans. Retirement-aged dentists are delaying their exit plans and are looking for diverse ways to stay in practice to generate more revenue. Many continue to practice as they were and others are trying to practice within a space where they may already have succession in place. However, on a grand scale, I don’t think labs really notice, mainly because there are more young dentists graduating now than in any time in our history. This just makes for a larger opportunity for dental labs in all aspects of dental technology.

Q: Do you anticipate working with an older workforce going forward as opposed to the way things may have been prior to the tough economic times?

A: Yes, but this is not opposed to the way things were pre-downturn. 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.

Q: What winning strategies should aging lab owners and technicians implement to emerge successful in the face of a down economy?

A: We all want to emerge from this economy viable and strong. Whether the goal of a senior lab owner is to continue working or to increase the value of his or her lab for potential buyers, the best strategy is to take only the earnings you actually need at the top and increase your investments on the floor.

It all comes down to reactionary versus visionary strategies. When the economy crashed and a decline was seen in earnings, many labs went into reactionary mode. They chose to lay off employees, cut benefits or send work off-shore to save revenue or to compete with pricing pressures. Some labs sought to be all things to all clients, but mastered nothing. Many will find that these strategies are only assistive in the short run, but have long term negative effects. When the dust clears, and the economy begins to show sustainable improvement, our customers will again begin to prosper. They will once again begin to shop, for quality not price. The lowest price will always be undercut by another low price, but added value will suffer. The most talented technicians, senior and junior, will seek out new employers that protect and value them. This strategy will result in a customer decline, lesser quality and a talent deficit, all of which will be damaging to their reputation.

Conversely, visionary lab owners, regardless of age, understand that while the market is down, when units decline, this is the time to invest energies and dollars internally, to strengthen the core. This strategy counts on the economy recovering. It requires utilizing valuable down-time as an opportunity to train technicians, coach managers and improve processes. Insightful lab owners look inside their organization, not merely to cut resources, but to lend resources to affect valuable change. They spend dollars and time on workforce development, product quality, consistency, workflow and accountability. They don’t delay training opportunities, waiting for better financial times. Especially, since most would agree that when the volume of work is up, there’s no time to train then, either. As painful as the lowered revenue is on the front end of this strategy (for agers, no doubt delaying much anticipated retirement plans), upon emergence this lab will be better positioned to take on as much market share as they wish. Recovery will be faster and the rewards will be greater and more sustainable.

Finally, from the standpoint of our senior technicians wishing to survive in a time of decline and reductions in force…we define our own destiny. Age is never the enemy of a knowledgeable technician. The inability to embrace change is. Many seniors have a fear of smartphones, social networking, e-mail and other personal computing products. They feign non-interest in all things digital, or proclaim them to be unnecessary. On the contrary, to keep our brains active and our skills engaged we need to learn things that we are uncomfortable with. Overcoming things that frustrate us and challenge us will make us stronger. If you’re sensing diminished value, and it is a product of your environment, change your environment. Provided one is still able-bodied and is willing to relocate if necessary, there are many good labs out there looking to grow and prosper and they need your experience to do it. So, for senior dental technicians that embrace change and stay strong, their age becomes elevated to an ‘asset’ level. And, since the current status and future outlook of dentistry is very good, a talented and knowledgeable technician should be able to work as long as they desire. Ultimately, young or old, you are in charge of removing the barriers that surround you.

Q: Is there anything positive to come out of this downturned economy for our profession and how does it affect our older workforce?

A: The most positive thing that has changed for our industry is the rate of change itself. For the past 50-60 years, the dental lab industry has been extremely slow, even resistant to accepting or adopting change. Of course history repeats itself, right? The world’s greatest industrial eras have risen out of necessity, caused by dismal economic conditions. It seems that for our profession, automation has finally arrived and we need to embrace this as an opportunity for recovery.

This new technology includes lasers, CAD/CAM technology, impression scanning and a substantial array of new biocompatible materials to work with. For boomer- technicians, they need to be the first to show an interest and learn as much as they can. They need to get involved or be left behind. Younger technicians might have been weaned on computers, but they still need to learn the information advanced dental technicians know, to be able to integrate and optimize the technology to the fullest. But make no mistake, if they don’t get it from you, they’ll find it somewhere else.

Q: What advice can you offer to lab owners to ensure their investments are wise ones in terms of allowing them to remain efficient and competitive in a changing industry?

A: First, conduct your business as a business, not as a hobby. Lab owners or aspiring lab owners should take advantage of NADL University. NADLU has a great line up of the industry’s best talents teaching Dental Laboratory Management. Department managers also benefit from this training; as they are often technically strong, but not business management strong. Even the best business courses in the market place do not quite cover the business of running a dental laboratory. I think all will agree that dental laboratories have a unique business dynamic.

Next, if you want to remain viable and efficient, learn all you can about the latest technologies, make measured choices based on data. Don’t rule out the opportunities for sourcing parts or whole products to your fellow labs. Sure they are your competitor, but there’s plenty of work for all. Help them to remain viable for their deep-pocket investments, while enjoying the benefits of not having to make the same investment.

Finally, all dental laboratories in the US are now considered device manufacturers, subject to FDA audit and penalty. Our previously un-regulated industry is having a hard time coming to terms with the requirements of being device manufacturers. All labs should invest in becoming DAMAS-certified. This will prepare you for all manner of investigation. More and more regulations will be introduced and lab owners will have to comply. Become informed about what is happening in your industry. From state regulations to grey market materials, from device taxation to gift reporting, things are changing rapidly.

The FDA is making progress towards developing the UDI (Unique Device Identifier) program for material safety and traceability. They are also increasing their random inspection of offshore shipments of lab devices for levels of lead content, resulting in delivery delays for these low-cost business models. Outsourced work is also being delayed for other reasons. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is reportedly increasing inspections of outsourced shipments of lab devices. Labs should also be disclosing point of origin to their customers on each device. According to the US CBP, point of origin must be disclosed for each device manufactured offshore, in a conspicuous place to the end-user. Currently, the end-user is considered to be the dentist. Get to know your industry alliances through the NADL and your state representatives. Find out what your state regulations are and your responsibilities and liabilities with regard to compliance.