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Nature of the Work
* Employment should increase slowly as the public's improving dental health requires fewer dentures, but more bridges and crowns.
* Technicians' salaries usually start at a little over the minimum wage, but earnings tend to rise dramatically as skills and experience are acquired.
* Dental laboratory technicians require an artistic aptitude for detailed and precise work, a high degree of manual dexterity, and good vision.
Dental laboratory technicians fill prescriptions from dentists for crowns, bridges, dentures, and other dental prosthetics. Dentists send a specification of the item to be fabricated, along with an impression (mold) of the patient's mouth or teeth, to the technicians. Then dental laboratory technicians, also called dental technicians, create a model of the patient's mouth by pouring plaster into the impression and allowing it to set. They place the model on an apparatus that mimics the bite and movement of the patient's jaw. The model serves as the basis of the prosthetic device. Technicians examine the model, noting the size and shape of the adjacent teeth or gaps within the gumline. Based upon these observations and the dentist's specifications, technicians build and shape a wax tooth or teeth using small hand instruments called wax spatulas and wax carvers. They use this wax model to cast the metal framework for the prosthetic device.
Once the wax tooth has been formed, dental technicians pour the cast and form the metal. Using small hand-held tools, they prepare the surface of the metal to allow the metal and porcelain to bond. They apply porcelain in layers to arrive at the precise shape and color of a tooth. Technicians place the tooth in a porcelain furnace to bake the porcelain onto the metal framework, then adjust the shape and color with subsequent grinding and addition of porcelain to achieve a sealed finish. The final product is an exact replica of the lost tooth or teeth.
In some laboratories, technicians perform all stages of the work, while in others, each does only a few. Dental laboratory technicians also may specialize in one of five areas: Orthodontic appliances, crowns and bridges, complete dentures, partial dentures, or ceramics. Job titles may reflect specialization in these areas. For example, technicians who make porcelain and acrylic restorations are called dental ceramists.
Dental laboratory technicians generally work in clean, well-lighted, and well-ventilated areas. Technicians usually have their own workbenches, which may be equipped with Bunsen burners, grinding and polishing equipment, and hand instruments, such as wax spatulas and wax carvers.
The work is extremely delicate and quite time consuming. Salaried technicians usually work 40 hours a week, but self-employed technicians frequently work longer hours.
Dental laboratory technicians held about 47,000 jobs in 1996. Most jobs were in commercial dental laboratories, which usually are small, privately owned businesses with fewer than five employees. However, some laboratories are larger; a few employ over 50 technicians.
Some dental laboratory technicians worked in dentists' offices. Others worked for hospitals providing dental services, including Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. Some technicians work in dental laboratories in their homes, in addition to their regular job. Approximately 1 technician in 7 is self-employed, a higher proportion than in most other occupations.
Most dental laboratory technicians learn their craft on the job. They begin with simple tasks, such as pouring plaster into an impression, and progress to more complex procedures, such as making porcelain crowns and bridges. Becoming a fully trained technician requires an average of 3 to 4 years depending upon the individual's aptitude and ambition, but it may take a few more years to become an accomplished technician.
Training in dental laboratory technology is also available through community and junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. Formal training programs vary greatly both in length and the level of skill they impart.
In 1997, 35 programs in dental laboratory technology were approved (accredited) by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in conjunction with the American Dental Association (ADA). These programs provide classroom instruction in dental materials science, oral anatomy, fabrication procedures, ethics, and related subjects. In addition, each student is given supervised practical experience in the school or an associated dental laboratory. Accredited programs generally take 2 years to complete and lead to an associate degree.
Graduates of 2-year training programs need additional hands-on experience to become fully qualified. Each dental laboratory owner operates in a different way, and classroom instruction does not necessarily expose students to techniques and procedures favored by individual laboratory owners. Students who have taken enough courses to learn the basics of the craft are generally considered good candidates for training, regardless of whether they have completed the formal program. Many employers will train someone without any classroom experience.
Certification, which is voluntary, is offered by the National Board for Certification in five specialty areas: Crowns and bridges, ceramics, partial dentures, complete dentures, and orthodontic appliances.
In larger dental laboratories, technicians may become supervisors or managers. Experienced technicians may teach or take jobs with dental suppliers in such areas as product development, marketing, or sales. Still, for most technicians, opening one's own laboratory is the way toward advancement and higher earnings.
A high degree of manual dexterity, good vision, and the ability to recognize very fine color shadings and variations in shape are necessary. An artistic aptitude for detailed and precise work is also important. Useful high school courses are art, metal and wood shop, drafting, and sciences. Courses in management and business may help those wishing to operate their own laboratories.
Job opportunities for dental laboratory technicians should be favorable despite very slow growth in the occupation. Employers have difficulty filling trainee positions, probably because of relatively low entry-level salaries and lack of familiarity with the occupation. Also, experienced technicians who have built up a favorable reputation with dentists should have good opportunities for establishing laboratories of their own.
Although job opportunities are favorable, employment of dental laboratory technicians is expected to grow more slowly than average through the year 2006, due to changes in dental care. The fluoridation of drinking water, which has reduced the incidence of dental cavities, and greater emphasis on preventive dental care since the early-1960s have improved the overall dental health of the population. As a result, fewer people are turning to full dentures. Most people will need only a bridge or crown. During the last few years, demand has arisen from an aging public that is growing increasingly interested in cosmetic prosthesis. For example, many dental laboratories are filling orders for composite fillings that are white and look like a natural tooth to replace older less attractive fillings.
The average annual wage for all workers in dental laboratories was $23,723 in 1995. According to limited data, trainees in dental laboratories average only a little over minimum wage. However, earnings rise sharply with experience. Technicians who are particularly productive or have an artistic ability to carve exact replicas of lost teeth may make $50,000 a year or more. In general, earnings of self-employed technicians exceed those of salaried workers. Technicians in large laboratories tend to specialize in a few procedures, and therefore tend to be paid a lower wage than those employed in small laboratories who perform a variety of tasks.
Dental laboratory technicians fabricate artificial teeth, crowns and bridges, and orthodontic appliances following the specifications and instructions provided by dentists. Other workers who make medical devices include arch-support technicians, orthotics technicians (braces and surgical supports), prosthetics technicians (artificial limbs and appliances), opticians, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians.
For a list of accredited programs in dental laboratory technology, contact:
Commission on Dental Accreditation, American Dental Association, 211 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60611. Homepage: http://www.ada.org
General information on grants and scholarships is available from dental technology schools.
For information on career opportunities in commercial laboratories, contact:
National Association of Dental Laboratories, 555 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria, VA 22314.
For information on requirements for certification, contact:
National Board for Certification in Dental Technology, 555 E. Braddock Rd., Alexandria, VA 22314.
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