The Dental Lab Expert – crisis and possible solutions to the lack of dental technicians

the lab expertAshley Byrne opens up about what needs to happen to encourage young people into the dental lab industry. 

Whether it’s Brexit, lack of colleges and apprenticeship schemes, or just a distinct lack of desire from the young to become technicians – we have an employment crisis on our hands.

Recent GDC registration figures have shown we have a huge drop in numbers of registered technicians losing over 2,000 since registration began and that translates quite simply to crisis levels.

With an industry growth of around 5% per annum and the estimated average age of a technician being 56 years old, the next 10 years are looking pretty bleak for employers. So what’s the plan and what can we do?

Encourage the young

Before we start, I want to express that I do not blame the lack of technicians on the colleges who have had so little to work with, and so few applicants, it is a miracle that we have what we have. I also do not blame Brexit as overseas technicians were always a stop gap. The lack of technicians lies with us and our own industry. And unless we change, we won’t see any new blood coming into our amazing industry.

I had a young trainee at my lab last week. One of our supplier company reps had asked me to take her in for a couple of days as she was despondent about her life choice to be a dental technician. She told me how her placement boss had asked: ‘Why are you wasting your life being a technician? Get a proper job.’ And then proceeded to dump her in the plaster room and her first job was to clean out the sumps.

I mean, really?! You want to encourage the young into our industry and we treat them like that? Thankfully this highly intelligent, confident young lady spent two days at my lab in CAD, prosthetics, model and ceramics and left at the end of her two days with an eight week summer placement.

She’s a rising star in the making and if we want the young to embrace our industry, we need to treat them with the respect they deserve. They are our future.

Essential skills

So where do we find these young techs? Well I love conversations like this: ‘My child is a gamer, they game all night, they game all day, they are wasting their futures!’ It’s good news for all those parents out there with kids who game as they are all potentially very successful dental technicians.

We actively look for gamers for their great hand to eye coordination and awesome computer skills. When we put them in CAD, they fly and like it or not, the future of our industry is in CAD-CAM. When we take on a trainee at Byrnes we do often start them in the model room but we ensure we mix that role with CAD and limit the time in the model room to one year.

This way they learn the essential skills of model work but by mixing it with CAD and CAM we find our yearly retention went through the roof. We taken on four trainees in the last six years and all four are still with us and three of those are now GDC registered.

Of course, that’s just four more people in an industry where we are a few thousand short of the numbers we need, so embracing technology faster than ever is crucial to the solution. When I recently posted some digitally made, 100% 3D printed dentures, most were excited but I still had comments like ‘you are killing the industry’ and ‘printers will rid us of our jobs’.

Win-win for everyone

**Newsflash** Industry 4.0 is the 4th industrial revolution and we are in it right now. If we do not embrace this change with 3D printing, artificial intelligence and augmented reality, we risk our industry collapsing all together.

The revolution doesn’t remove the role of the technician but it does remove plaster investing, prosthetic investing, messy models that pollute the water coarse with gypsum, and imagine never having to change that plaster sump again. These machines allow us to remove those aspects and allow technicians to focus on aesthetics, finishing, and the art work of the smile.

By using technology, we can increase the output of the technician but actually allow more time to focus on the high end aspects of the job and remove the messy dirty areas that drive most young people away from a future as a dental technician. I see that as a win-win for everyone involved, from the patient to the lab owner.

The future can look bleak if you focus on the negative but if we embrace technology, encourage the young and turn our industry into a high tech forward thinking medical manufacture, the young will flood to our industry.

This will generate demand and funding will become available, we can train these people into high skilled dental technicians using 3D printers, AI as well as artistic skills and flare and we can finally put dental technology on the map as a leading innovation industry like it should be.

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