Link an abundance of technologically advanced products with a chronic shortage of skilled technicians, perpetual lack of newcomers to the field and a 60% decline in the number of two-year dental technology programs over the past two decades and what do you get: a training crisis.
To tackle the challenge, many laboratory owners are enhancing their efforts by expanding their training programs, materials and on-site facilities. "It's not like 20 years ago when you could park someone in a chair and teach him to build a crown by a three-step process. Today there's so much more that technicians need to understand about materials and techniques," says Karen Crace, CDT, vice president of Lab One, Norfolk, Virginia.
However, much of the effort to fill the educational void has been coming from sources outside the laboratory. Manufacturers and suppliers have put enormous energy into bridging the gap. In addition to a wealth of training manuals, CDs, videotapes and on-line technical assistance, there are an unprecedented number of manufacturer-sponsored technical and business-oriented seminars and clinic programs available to laboratory owners.
Also, the number of independent continuing education sources has flourished. With topics ranging from occlusion to esthetics, training via various educational institutes and technician-clinicians-many of whom have made educating their peers a second career-is becoming the norm.
There is an increasing awareness of the need for side-by-side training for dentists and technicians. For example, dentist-oriented training facilities are expanding their programs to include technicians and dental associations, such as the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry and the Northeastern Gnathological Society, are encouraging technician membership and embracing their participation in these educational opportunities.
This emphasis on the teamwork approach to education is fueled, in part, by the decline in dental technology training in dental schools. "In the past 20 years, there has been a 40% decrease in the time spent teaching technical aspects of prosthodontics at the University of Iowa dental school. Instruction on occlusion and material science is being replaced by courses on patient communication and interpersonal skills," says Dr. Robert Schneider, professor and clinical director at the university. "As a result, dentists need to rely on technicians more than ever before."
This reliance ups the ante and is putting an additional responsibility on laboratory owners: not only do they have to enhance their employee training efforts, they also need to educate their dentist-clients. Providing technical training through chairside assistance, step-by-step technique manuals, newsletters and continuing education programs for dentists have become a routine part of many laboratories' customer service focus. "We've always worked hard to service our customers the best that we can. Eventually, we realized that the best way to do that is to help them acquire the skills they need," says Moshe Mizrachi, owner of Mizrachi Dental Laboratory, Columbus, Ohio, who founded the Columbus Institute of Cosmetic Dentistry, a 10,000-sq.-ft. training facility in 1998.
Like the silver lining on a dark cloud, the training crisis has inspired a number of philanthropic efforts among members of our community. For example, when word got out last spring that the dental technology program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio was in imminent danger of closure, numerous associations and industry members rallied to save the program. Their public outcry was heard by the school's administration and the program continues to be operational. "Every element of the dental profession rose to our defense. It is a clear indication that the dental profession recognizes the need and value for dental technology education," says Rosie Davis, MS, CDT, chairman of the department.
Even individual laboratories are making a difference. For instance, Affordable Dentures Dental Laboratories, headquartered in North Carolina, recently donated $1,500 to the Dental Laboratory Association of Texas for a scholarship and meeting sponsorship. The lab is also working with manufacturers and suppliers to obtain product donations for the dental laboratory technology department at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen, Texas. "We have donated supplies to various programs in the past but now we are stepping up our efforts. It's not practical to think that we can overcome each issue facing the industry overnight. However, it is feasible to change the industry, one person, one training program at a time by giving something back to it," says Chief Operating Officer W. Loren Edwards.