I wrote a Facebook post a few months ago on the subject of supply and demand, relating it to our recent struggles in recruiting qualified, GDC registered Dental Technicians. The post had almost 200 comments and has recently had a few more comments.

I would firstly like to thanks Jim Webb (Fig1) for sharing some stats on the number of Dental Technicians currently registered with the GDC. It hit me really hard when you see the black and white figures. I appreciate, there may be several technicians that decided not to continue their GDC registration and work as process workers, that said, there will be many that have registered and are retired or have left the profession. The figures are damming. Ash Byrne also shared an old slide (Fig2) in another facebook group, he commented that he once lectured on the shortage of Dental Technicians and the figures he shared from 2016 follow the same trend, the demise of the Dental Technician.

By 2040 Dental Technicians Will Be Extinct

The figures shared by Ash and Jim both tell the same story, we are on a path of extinction! The latest figures from the GDC show an increase in our demise. At the current run rate of technicians registering with the GDC, we will run out of Registered Dental Technicians in less than 20 years.  I don’t doubt that the pandemic has taken its toll on some labs, lab owners and technicians, however, for once, we can’t let the blame lay solely at the Covid doorstep.

We have seen many of our longstanding training institutions stop offering Dental Technician qualifications which clearly has a knock on effect. Pre-covid, we saw levels of unemployment at around 3.6%, the lowest since 1973. Perhaps access to better paid roles with significantly less responsibility may have had a role in this. Let’s face it, being a professional means we have some work to do to maintain our registrations and classically the salaries within the industry have varied hugely and often sat at the lower end of the scale.

It has been suggested by several well know technicians that we are our own worst enemies, undercutting prices, supplying cheap prosthesis and custom made devices to NHS dentists and competing in a race to the bottom. This inevitably leads to the need to employ cheaper staff in order to remain competitive.

Training Issues

Without knowing the exact figures, it doesn’t take a genius to know that we aren’t able to train enough new technicians. As far as I am aware there are now only 4 institutions running programmes leading to a registrable qualification. Unsurprising that many of the university programs have seen a decline in number of students undertaking 3 year degree programs. When the earning potential for Dental Technicians on the whole is relatively poor and you consider the amount of debt degree students have to take on to complete their training, it doesn’t paint the rosiest of pictures.

I have been helping our local college this year teaching practical orthodontic sessions. They have really struggled getting the students through the program due to a large part of the year being lost due to the pandemic. It is very difficult teaching a practical course via Zoom, so it turns out! I expect each of the universities and colleges will have had similar struggles and it is likely we will see a dip in numbers of students that will pass the course, they simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn and produce high quality work. This will inevitably lead to the decline in numbers even further.

Questions We Must Ask?

A fellow technician posed a few questions to me about the current shortage of Dental Technicians, all of which are really valid points that we must consider. Is the real problem an immediate shortage of technicians due to an uptake in dental treatments? There are many patients that have disposable income brought about by the pandemic, after all we haven’t been able to spend money on holidays or going out. Maybe we will see a steady return to normal levels of lab cases over the coming months/years.

Is the shortage caused by a reduction in uptake as a career? I have suggested this earlier in the article, the cost of university degrees is no small thing. Students are much more savvy when they are choosing which degree program to study, most will research career pathways and earning potential.

Are we seeing more technicians leaving the profession to seek other opportunities leading to a diminishing amount of registered technicians? Just over 15 years ago, I myself considered leaving my very comfortable NHS Hospital job to retrain as a plumber. I applied for the college course as I knew my earning potential as a plumber would be way higher than my role within the hospital, and I had already reached my glass ceiling within the NHS pay grades.

Are we to be concerned with the future of dental technology? Is this simply a blip and will there be a steady decline in the need for highly skilled Dental Technicians due to automation, in-house capabilities and digital capacity increases the workforce naturally reduces?

Not All Bad News!

I initially posted on this subject and related to the current shortage of technicians as a ‘Supply & Demand’ issue. At present we have a demand for our services that has exceeded the ability to keep supplying the goods at the same rate. Something has to give, usually it is increase the working day with overtime, this isn’t sustainable. Or increase lead times, this isn’t ideal as we now live in a society that doesn’t like to wait too long for things. These are two strategies that can help with the immediate issue where demand exceeds supply.

Longer term, we need a better strategy. The first thing we must address is attracting fresh blood to join the profession, secondly (and not particularly in this order) we need to retain people in our profession. I would argue that we must have a paradigm shift. To attract new people in and retain staff, inevitably we have to pay better, have better working conditions and better opportunities to grow. This is all linked to how we price our services, again mentioned earlier in this article, we need to stop with the race to the bottom and sell our services properly.

For me, I have sincerely enjoyed my time in the profession, I have met some amazing people and made some incredible friends along the way. Apart from my own little blip and near waltz with becoming a plumber, I have really enjoyed my professional career, it’s not over yet!

We have to help ourselves and help the new generation coming through the ranks. I would argue that we have never had it so good. We have some of the most exciting times in terms of technology that can help us in our labs, we as a group of professionals are more open than I ever remember, we are so open to sharing ideas and have very open discussions in our forums and social media groups.

We Need To Raise Our Profiles and Maybe Our Prices

We are in demand, we should utilise this and raise our profiles. Let us showcase our skills and let us charge appropriately for our services. I read another social media post today about the true cost of providing NHS dentures at a competitive rate. I have never understood the need to subsidise the NHS by providing cheap custom made devices to the NHS dentists. We owe the NHS nothing, our labs are not charities, we should charge based on our skills, experience, overheads and total cost of goods sold, not based on what my local competition are charging, this is truly a race to the bottom.

If any of you have ever studied Business at school, college or university, you may have read about ‘Supply and Demand’, healthcare and dental treatment is perhaps not the first thing we think of when discussing the subject of supply and demand and price elasticity. However, it is very relevant, particularly right now. If our staffing is scarce, our products and services become scarce. The demand is currently high for several reasons, the law of supply and demand would usually mean prices increase. What a perfect opportunity to review your pricing if you haven’t done so for a while.

What Next?

I am very aware that this article is very much an opinion based piece and I do hope it will spark some conversations, discussions and may even open the eyes of some that are unaware of any issues regarding the decline of Dental Technician numbers.

From this article, I do hope to gain some support and obtain some more official statistics in order for us to raise our profiles and let the general media, population and more importantly our leaders know that we may have a crisis on our hands if we do not take action now.

I would really appreciate any feedback and any help in raising this issue we are facing with our peers, within our professions and the wider population.

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