High Demand for Dental Care Professionals

High Demand for Dental Care Professionals

Worker shortage driving need for Dental Assistants and Dental Hygienists

| By: Britten, Casey

Careers in healthcare are both stable and fulfilling. If you’re interested in dental care, you may want to consider a career as a Dental Assistant or a Dental Hygienist. Both positions support dentists while providing clients with high-quality services, but there are some crucial distinctions between the two.

Dental Assistants work under the supervision of dentists in their day-to-day activities, while Dental Hygienists complete a wider range of job duties and responsibilities. Both professions are in high demand and are expected to see positive job growth over the next 10 years. 

Robin Eichhorst, Department Chair for FVTC’s Dental Assistant and Dental Hygienist programs, joined host Hayley Tenpas during WHBY’s Focus on Careers segment. Robin and Hayley talked about the two programs, how they differ and how they prepare students to work in the dental care industry, which is currently experiencing a worker shortage.


Hayley Tenpas: Welcome back to Focus Fox Valley on WHBY. Switching gears now as we focus on careers with Fox Valley Technical College, highlighting careers of promise and opportunities to learn something new. At Fox Valley Tech, I'm excited to highlight a program that you might not know about, but I guarantee this is a process that you go through about every six months that's getting your teeth cleaned. A very important part of our health journeys, right? Something we've been doing since we were little kids. My children are big fans of going to the dentist. And of course, you're always greeted by the smiling faces of those dental hygienists or dental assistants. We're going to learn more about how you can become a dental hygienist or dental assistant with those programs. At Fox Valley Tech, we have the department chair of the Dental Hygiene and Dental Assistant programs with us in studio today, Robin Eichhorst. Good morning to you, Robin. Thanks for being here today.

Robin Eichhorst: Thank you for having me.

Hayley: Well, I like to start by doing a little get to know you. So can you tell us about your career and what kind of brought you to Fox Valley Tech as now the department chair of these programs?

Robin: Yes, I was kind of a non-traditional student in the sense that I have five children. Over 20 years ago, I started wanting to do more than I was as an at-home mom. And I wanted to really think about going into the workforce. But I didn't want just a job. I wanted a career. And Fox Valley Tech was very accessible for me to be able to go to school and still be a mom. There was a daycare center at Fox Valley Tech, and my youngest was not in school yet, so she was able to go to school with me, which was a very good thing of course. It’s good to have those resources. I just gravitated towards health science and chose the dental hygiene program.

Hayley: Excellent. So did you work locally upon graduation or what did you do next?

Robin: I did, I worked locally, I graduated in 2004, and I worked for about 10-ish years. And one of my favorite things about my job really was patient education. And that just became kind of a gravitational pull for me to get into education with students. So I became an adjunct faculty. Then I became part-time faculty, and a lot of things have kind of changed since Covid. I'm now full-time and program director of dental hygiene and also the department chair.

Hayley: Excellent. I love that journey. I love that you were a nontraditional student. How wonderful that you had the childcare. It's a beautiful story. I'm sure a lot of listeners might be able to relate with that. That's fantastic. So, you mentioned two programs in the dental program: dental hygienist and also dental assistant technical diploma. Let's start first with, I guess, understanding maybe the differences and what the two sort of are. So let's start maybe with a dental hygienist. What does that program all entail?

Robin: The dental hygienist program is an associate degree. It is a rigorous program. The requirements that students have to do besides having their theory courses, which are pretty rich in science, they do treat patients. We treat actual patients for their requirements in order to become a dental hygienist. So you think of that dental hygienist is that person who does that cleaning every six months. A hygienist is licensed professional. They maintain their own schedule. They work fairly independently at dental offices. I mean there's different dental office models out there. But they see the re-care patients. And it's really the assessments that students have to—well,  we train the students now—but of course the dental hygienist would perform the assessments and then the treatment would follow based upon the assessments. Other things that we have in our program that students have to learn is providing local anesthesia, also nitrous oxide, they have to have training and nitrous oxide as well. And that would be like laughing gas.

Hayley: Yes. I wondered if that that terminology still exists. Excellent. And what do career choices sort of look like for those graduates of the dental hygiene program?

Robin: Well, gosh, right now there is a workforce shortage in Wisconsin. So this is an exciting time for our school, for our programs for sure, because we've been trying to increase our enrollment, so the job forecast is amazing. There's an abundant amount of jobs out there. Students right now, we have students graduating, and pretty much everyone has a job. I mean, the other thing that's kind of nice about the dental hygiene career, I would say, is that a lot of people do end up working. They have an option to work part-time. A lot of people will just kind of choose to work 2 or 3 days a week. I mean, certainly depending on if you really want to have, you know, the benefits and such, you can work the 4 to 5 days a week, but it does offer some flexibility for people.

Hayley: That's great. Now let's talk about the dental assistant technical diploma. How does that differ from a dental hygienist?

Robin: Yes. Well dental assistant is a nine-month program and it is a technical diploma. So a dental assistant professional, that is the one who kind of assists the dentists, right? The dentists do a lot of the treatment of restoring teeth. There's multiple restorative procedures out there that dental assistants have to learn about. And they help that dentist chair-side. So kind of like forehanded dentistry is a way that I describe it. When a person does need to have a treatment on a tooth, it has to be isolated. That tooth needs to be isolated and dry. The assistant has to understand all the different materials and instruments to hand to the dentist and help with that. So that's part of it. But I would say that an assistant wears a lot of hats, meaning that an assistant does help with all the behind-the-scenes functions of a dental office anywhere from helping to keep up with sterilization to taking x-rays, to supplies, to helping out with the front office. So whereas a dental hygienist is seeing their scheduled patients all day, the dental assistant is kind of doing a few different tasks.

Hayley: Talk with us about what students are looking like these days. Typical student out of high school? Are you seeing some returning, kind of like you did? What's the mix looking like?

Robin: Well it really is a mix. We have a mixture of nontraditional and traditional students, of course. And a lot of our dental hygiene students are actually dental assistants. So a lot of times students will go into dental assisting. They'll do that for a number of years, and then they'll decide that they do want to continue and become a dental hygienist. That is a licensed profession, which for dental assisting is not required in Wisconsin to have a certificate, but it is an option. Another kind of an exciting thing that we have going on right now is we are planning to offer a new program called EFDA, which is Expanded Function Dental Auxiliary. This was really enacted in 2022 in Wisconsin. And really, this would be adding functions to what a dental assistant primarily could do. Doesn't mean that a dental hygienist couldn't go for this if they chose to do so, but this would allow dental assistants to apply some of the restorative, after a dentist would prep a tooth, for example. So it just expands the functions of that dental assistant. That would need a certificate for that one, though. Our dental assisting faculty are getting their training in order, and we’re hoping for fall of 2025 to offer that program.

Hayley: That's so exciting. And clearly you see the job need out there. All good news for those looking to get into this program. Excellent. Well, I know one thing that the community might know about is that Fox Valley Tech does have a working clinic, a full working clinic that serves the local community. I want to ask you about it, but also, how does the community utilize this too?

Robin: Yeah, for the dental hygiene students, they have to serve patients on campus. It's part of their patient requirements; they have to fulfill that. We do have a clinic that people can call and we do serve local area people who rely on our dental hygiene services. But yes, we have a full working clinic. Anyone can call and we can we put them in a patient book, and then our students will go through that patient book and reach out to that person and schedule them. It does take more than one time to get your teeth cleaned, though. I mean, it takes multiple visits because every single thing that is done in our campus clinic is also confirmed and assessed by hygiene faculty. And we have dentist faculty on staff as well.

Hayley: Excellent. And be patient because they're learning and that's wonderful to know. Is there a place they can go to get on that list or to sign up potentially?

Robin: Yes. The number to call is (920) 735-4884.

Hayley: Perfect. And we'll put that on our website as well. Robin, if anyone's interested in this program, how do they get in touch?

Robin: Oh, well, definitely call Fox Valley Tech. Definitely want to just speak to Enrollment Services. I think the hardest thing right now is we barely have openings for students to apply. We are not taking applications for dental hygiene. We are for dental assisting, but we open them up every once in a while because it's such a popular in-demand program. So that's the one thing. But certainly reach out. We do maintain a list of prospective people that are interested, though, and we can definitely add them to a list and let them know when they can apply.

Hayley: Wow in-demand and jobs are waiting for you. What a beautiful, beautiful journey there at Fox Valley Technical College. Robin, thank you so much for joining us here today. It was great to meet you and to learn more about this program.

Robin: Thank you.