Where Are All The Dental Hygienists and Dental Assistants?

Woman looking through binoculars with a wondering gaze

The dental industry isn’t shy to talent shortages. But the current shortage hits a little bit differently. Today, we want to dive deep into the data and explore why the current dental talent shortage is so pervasive, and how you can approach hiring in the face of a bone-dry labour economy.

Where is Everyone?

For every month over the past two years, dentists surveyed for both the ADA and the CDA cited the same top concern: staffing issues. It’s no surprise. Around 50 percent of dental offices are actively recruiting hygienists, yet over 90 percent of them say it’s “extremely” hard to find them. Dental assistants are equally as hard to recruit, and even receptionists seem hidden behind the fog of war.

So…where is everyone? Why is it so hard to find dental talent? The answer gets complicated. Unlike previous talent shortages — where shortages are primarily due to competition for talent — this current skill drain combines a hurricane of forces, including:

  • A reduction in the number of hygienists graduating from school
  • A shift in how people work
  • A significant number of people leaving the workforce entirely
  • Competition for high-value talent
  • A complete restructuring of the types of opportunities available to everyone

School is for Fools

Fewer dental hygienists and assistants are enrolling in school, and fewer are graduating. Back in 2010, three hygienists graduated for every dentist that did the same. In other words, the average dentist would (theoretically) have access to 3 hygienists to support office growth and patient care.

Today, that number is one-to-one. And after we take solo hygienists, those who transition into non-hygiene work, and those who leave the workforce after graduating, there simply aren’t enough hygienists graduating today to give each dentist a single hygienist for support.

In short: not as many hygienists are graduating. And the news is even worse for assistants, who have had a continued downward trend in enrollment since 2015. Of note, these trends pre-date COVID, and there are no positive signs that enrollment will swell in the future. The only thing keeping the ship steady are the existing talent pools. Over half of hygienists have over 11 years of experience.

When this is juxtaposed with the need for dental hygienists and dental assistants (9 to 11 percent growth outlook), the picture becomes clear. Dental hygienists are one of the most growth-ready positions in the world, and people are simply avoiding the career. And there are a few reasons for this.

Home Sweet Home

The in-office vs. at-home debate continues to spark national headlines. But, for dental offices, the story is a little less choice-based. Dental hygienists need to be in the office. Yet, for many, the temptation of the work-from-home life is hard to ignore. Over 90 percent of people do not want to return to “the office.” They want to work from home.

The problem? They can. With unfettered access to jobs across the globe via remote work, people are reskilling, upskilling, and cross-skilling at lightning speeds. Some hygienists are simply transitioning into new jobs that allow them to go remote. We’re not entirely sure this trend will hold up, but it is currently adding a splash of chaos to an already bone-dry labour pool in dentistry.

Bye Bye

Over 9 percent of the entire dental hygienist workforce left two years ago. Most didn’t return. A chance collision between dwindling enrollment rates and a remarkable surge in hygienists’ quitting or retiring has put a serious strain on the industry.

But… why are they quitting?

According to the ADA,

  • 42.9 percent say it’s a culture issue
  • 32.8 percent say it’s a lack of opportunity for growth
  • 32.6 percent say it’s a lack of benefits
  • 32.1 percent say it’s because they’re overworked
  • 27.2 percent say it’s communication issues

The full list can be found here (obviously, hygienists could select multiple answers). For the purpose of this post, we’re mainly focusing on the outside factors. We need to make an entire post surrounding the internal frictions that are driving hygienists away (an area we are extremely passionate about).

That said, it’s important to note that many hygienists are simply disappearing. And the ones that aren’t are harder to find than ever before. Because everyone wants them.

Out Come the Wolves

Finding a dental hygienist is challenging for most offices. Finding well-qualified and highly-trained ones with a good culture fit can feel nearly impossible. Everyone is on the hunt, and many of them have big wallets.

In the past, securing hygienists was mostly just a matter of putting out a job ad or listing. Today, it’s like finding a needle in the haystack. Worse, everyone in your area is already knee-deep in the haystack, and you have to find a way to wedge yourself in there.

You have a few options:

  1. Outpay everyone else: if you outpay, you will find a hygienist. It may not be the perfect hygienist, but salary wars do produce results. Of course, the flip side to this is that it eats at your profits, impacts your pricing, and can result in a less competitive overall office against competitors that are underpricing and overspending you in marketing. 80 percent of dental offices have already raised their starting pay. It seems to be a battle to the top, and not many offices are winning.
  2. Get lucky: this one is easy. You could just get lucky. Some offices do. Finding people is often a “right time; right place” type of situation.
  3. Utilize experienced headhunting: working with a company like WORKFORCE is a good middle ground. You pay a little bit more to acquire the talent, but you get best-fit candidates that are deeply sourced. Today, this tends to be the primary way to find good talent, as there simply aren’t many qualified hygienists around, and finding one that fits your office culture is nearly impossible when you don’t have the luxury of 20 applicants on a job posting.

It’s just hard. Nearly 40 percent of the current hygienists are expecting to retire in 5 years. Talent isn’t just sparse, it’s at a breaking point. The winners will utilize the options available to them and get savvy about recruitment.

Nontraditional is the New Traditional

Perhaps the most unusual trend (historically) is that people everywhere have nearly unlimited opportunities, and people are starting to gravitate towards jobs where they’re in charge of their schedules. Why work at Walmart when you can earn the same delivering groceries on your own time via an app like Instacart? Why work in fast food when you can deliver that food via DoorDash for double the pay?

This is impacting hygienists as well. Telehealth and self-practice are both tempting. Even temping offers hygienists their own hours. Of course, all of these digital jobs also allow hygienists to dip out of the field entirely for remote tech jobs or consulting gigs that wouldn’t have been feasible 5 years ago.

We find that around 80 percent of our temps eventually want to go full-time. But some hygienists are going to leverage digital positions to gain experience in higher-paying fields. This new parameter is wholly unusual compared to previous shortages. And if we want hygienists to stay involved in the field, something eventually needs to change. We don’t have the answers, but we know they’re needed.

We Can Help You Secure Dental Talent

At WORKFORCE, we help dental offices secure best-in-class hygienists, assistants, and receptionists. Whether you need a talent quickly to cover a few schedules or you need a permanent employee to help you grow your office, we can help you find talent today. Contact us or sign up today to see why 25 percent of offices are using solutions like WORKFORCE to escape the talent drought.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get in-depth, data-drenched guides to help you navigate the dental ecosystem with ease.

Share this post with your friends

Scroll to Top