Last month, Lynn Tomkins — president of the Canadian Dental Association (CDA) — called the dental assistant shortage “the number one issue for dentists across the country.” She also added that Canada is currently experiencing a shortage of around 5,000 dental assistants, a number she expects to grow year-over-year for the next decade.
This statement comes on the back of Canada’s March budget, which includes the $13 billion Canadian Dental Care Plan. Over the next year, 9 million uninsured Canadians with income under $90,000 will have access to dental coverage.
This juxtaposition of increased access to dental care and a serious lack of dental talent has offices scrambling for help and legislators stumped on solutions.
Why We’re Here
The dental assistant shortage is less of an unexpected earthquake and more of a predictable tidal wave. The water has been rocky for years. For the past decade, dental assistant numbers have been dropping. The CDA admits that nearly one-third of dental offices in Canada lacked dental assistants in 2019. Today, that number is likely closer to one-half given the headaches larger labour market.
Well, for multiple reasons.
For starters, enrollments for dental assistants have been dwindling since 2015. There aren’t enough dental assistants graduating. And a decent chunk of the ones that do end up leaving the field for good. To add fuel to the fire, around 70 percent of dental assistants have voluntarily quit their job in the past. So, even the few dental assistants that are staying often provide retention headaches for offices.
Of course, that’s not even considering the 33.7 percent of dental assistants that expect to retire within the next 5 years, which will add a seemingly-insurmountable drought to an already bone-dry labour market.
When it comes to satisfaction, most dental assistants actually seem satisfied at a glance. Yet, behind the curtain, tell-tale signs of burnout are immediately obvious (often before assistants even graduate). Insufficient pay, lack of growth, poor benefits packages, and an overworking culture also contribute to the lack of available talent.
Still, the current shortage doesn’t seem easily solved by any single strategy.
Where We Go From Here
There’s no easy fix. Recently, the CDA published its recommendations for the government regarding the dental workforce shortage. In short, the following were pillars of their advice to legislators:
- The shortage is an incredibly complex issue that can’t simply be solved by spawning more dental assistants.
- Non-salary-based solutions like mental health and wellness training and human resources management skills can help minimize burnout and improve retention.
- Canada’s increasing immigrant population combined with improved labour mobility between jurisdictions can provide a pool of candidates to train for new dental talent roles.
- Digital tools can help reach new dental assistants via online learning programs.
Importantly, the first bullet point is front-of-mind for most of us. This isn’t an easy solution. We’re still trying to get enough dental talent (including dentists) in rural areas. Yet, there aren’t even enough dental assistants to support the big cities right now. Heck, there’s hardly enough talent available to help cover holiday shifts at the largest offices — much less the offices that can’t afford the highest-possible pay.
Despite some issues with burnout, the lack of enrollment doesn’t seem intrinsically connected to any core theme. It’s a myriad of issues all leading to not only a lack of dental assistants but a lack of people even considering dental assisting as a worthwhile career path.
For offices, these headaches aren’t going away anytime soon. Over 90 percent looking for talent are finding it near-impossible to find people. Eventually, legislation will almost certainly aim to help minimize these staffing headaches. But we don’t expect a massive swell of assistants in the near future (or even the mid-horizon).
Need Dental Assistants?
At WORKFORCE, we can’t fix the dental assistant shortage or the inflation crisis. But we can help you access a highly-trained pool of dental assistants ready to help you tackle your next in-office challenge. From temporary talent to full-time placements, WORKFORCE has the talent and tools to help you thrive in a labour-strapped market. To learn more, contact us or sign up to see our available talent.