A Day in the Life of a Dental Lab Technician

Dental technicians provide back-office support to dentists. After the dentist has taken a mold of the patient’s teeth, the dental technician uses the mold to produce a wax replica of the teeth, from which he constructs any needed crowns, bridges, or false teeth, and later makes any adjustments to these appliances as directed by the dentist. Dental technicians work closely with dentists and orthodontists. Our survey respondents pointed out that DTs are often confused with dental hygienists, who work with the dentist and mostly “clean” teeth and treat periodontal (gum) disease. Dental lab technicians insist that they “don’t scrape plaque or put our fingers in anybody’s mouth!” In fact they have patient contact only in unusual situations that require a visual inspection of the patient’s teeth. Though many labs are large, some technicians are sole practitioners in their studios and can work under contract with a dentist. The painstaking detail work is largely solitary. “If you’re afraid of being alone, don’t sign up,” said one DT. Successful DTs say it’s important to be able to make adjustments on the fly. They create facsimiles of people’s teeth, and, while impressions can be perfect, they often need minor adjustments, and the DT must work from information provided by the dentist to adjust molds to imitate the patient’s mouth. “You can get through grinding and shaping three or four times and the dentist still isn’t satisfied,” wrote one. Another added that “it’s not personal, but it can be very frustrating.” They share certain skills with sculptors and don’t mind working hard on making their molds accurate and useful; after all, without a precise fit, these casts are useless. A good eye and a good ear serve candidates well in this exacting profession.

Paying Your Dues

No formal college major is required to become a dental technician. Most candidates learn, on the job, how to shape, mold, and grind their materials. Many train on the job for two to three years before becoming sole practitioners. About forty-five dental colleges in the country offer dental technician programs accredited by the American Dental Association. In their final years at those colleges, students choose one area of specialization, such as orthodontics or crowns and bridges, then take licensing exams (such as the one offered by the National Board of Certification), although these licensing exams are not always required.

Present and Future

There used to be only a handful of dental technicians who provided highly technical assistance for patients in oral crisis (e.g., massive tooth decay, full bridge replacements, or jaw deformity). With the rapid growth of orthodontics in the 1970s, work for dental technicians expanded and people began to enter the profession in significant numbers. Over the years many have had to return to school to keep up with new technology and new methods of construction, but the most pressing force behind change in the industry has been the use of new materials in making impressions and molds. Demographic trends suggest there will be a continuing demand for specialists as America’s population ages. For people who work in gerontological dentistry in particular, the future looks more promising. Because the bulk of DT work consists of standard procedures (such as brace making and tooth spacing), economies of scale have come into play, favoring larger firms that can process these requests quickly and efficiently. But every set of teeth is slightly different, and specialists must create solutions in unpredictable situations.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

Most of those who work in supervised environments have just completed their on-the-job training programs and are working as assistant dental technicians, grinding molds to specifications, creating wax castings of teeth for crown construction, and shaping jawline impressions. Other relatively new professionals are now full dental technicians and continue to work with their initial employers. Most work in offices of five people or fewer, so these early years are marked by close relationships and tight working conditions. Hours are long; satisfaction is average.

FIVE YEARS OUT

Job mobility becomes significant; over one-third of dental technicians go into private practice at this point, either buying an existing shop or working as an independent contractor affiliated with a number of dentists or HMOs. The remainder move between dental offices, finding temporary matches between themselves and their employers. Satisfaction increases and so do hours.

TEN YEARS OUT

Ten-year professionals have chosen areas of specialization such as ceramics, partial and complete dentures, orthodontic appliances, or crown and bridge replacements. Salaries increase, and many sole practitioners hire less experienced technicians to help them in their work. Satisfaction is at its highest as ten-year veterans are experienced technicians with a reliable client base and good business-recruiting skills. Those who lack any of these elements of a successful technician seek an associated career that satisfies them in the same way.