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How to Become a Dental Lab Technician

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The business of building beautiful smiles is a partnership between the dentists who do the work and the dental laboratory technicians who create bridges, crowns and dentures to complement or replace natural teeth. While dentists must earn a doctor of medicine in dentistry (DMD) or doctor of dental surgery (DDS) degree, an educational process lasting several years, dental laboratory technicians typically learn on the job or take a two-year community college course. We asked Gary Iocco, a longtime laboratory owner and president of the National Association of Dental Laboratories, to give us some insight into becoming a dental laboratory technician.

eHow: Technicians can get started through formal schooling, or by learning on the job in a lab. Does either path offer a clear advantage?

Iocco: There's a question there because our profession offers so many business models. Some laboratories are high-volume, high-production, where they teach a technician one step out of many, and that's all they'll do. Now, technicians coming out of school have a well-rounded knowledge base. It's a basic knowledge base, because mostly these are two-year schools and that doesn't leave much time in each department, but they've at least been exposed to the profession as a whole.

eHow: Does that mean you can't get well-rounded training in a lab?

Iocco: We just had a technician go out to a very large lab on the West Coast, and they teach their technicians one step. That's it. They really hone in on that one step and do a tremendous amount of production, so you're really good at that one step. Technicians that learn on the job in a smaller lab like ours will learn multiple steps in the process. A crown and bridge technician will also learn to wax and finish, or a denture technician will learn how to scan a design and either mill it on our mills or print it on our resin printer. In a smaller one- or two-person lab, you need to learn a lot about everything. In my mind, the more education you have about the entire process, and the more you've worked with it, is going to make you a better, well-rounded technician.

eHow: How much of a premium do employers place on certification?

Iocco: I put a high, high premium on someone that has a CDT, that has passed the Certified Dental Technician exam. It shows they have at the least a very good understanding of fit, form and function; how a crown or a denture is supposed to be made and how it's supposed to act in the mouth. Again, it goes back to "do you do just one little step, or do you understand the entire process?" If you have that understanding, you'll approach your own job differently, so it's easier and more efficient to finish the steps that come after you. In a recent survey of dentists, 80 percent said they valued Certified Dental Technicians. That's because for the most part, dentists call the lab to ask about materials and how different options would work. They want an informed technician, who understands the technology. We have more technicians taking the CDT exam now than we've had in many years.

eHow: What aptitudes or character traits make for a successful technician?

Iocco: Good hand-eye coordination. Good spatial recognition, an ability to think visually in three dimensions. Meaning, we have a limited space to put that tooth; how do we design those? You have to be someone who can sit at a bench and work on these tiny objects day in and day out. It's tedious, detailed work and you have to make it fit into exact spaces. I have high regard for someone who can do that.

eHow: The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't break out figures for dental laboratory technicians. As president of the National Association of Dental Laboratories, how do you see prospects for new technicians?

Iocco: I think the outlook is fabulous, I really do. We're still losing labs to consolidation or closing, down from a high of over 13,000 laboratories in 2008 to about 8700 right now. Part of that was the broader economic downturn, but we're also seeing about 34 percent of all dental lab work getting outsourced overseas, mostly to China. In spite of that, the work is still there. Several years ago the average lab employed six people; now it's up to twelve. There's a lot of pent-up demand as a result of the 2008 downturn, because people postponed having significant work done. Now we're seeing more and more larger cases, where the patient says, "just do it, I'm tired of waiting." In my lab we're having a pretty good year, we're doing more full dentures and partials than we have in many years. It's not gangbusters, but I think the industry is rebounding.

eHow: Is demand especially high in any of the profession's specialties?

Iocco: Dentures and partials, what we call removables, those are skyrocketing. I see very high demand in implants, and especially in CAD/CAM (computer-assisted drafting, computer-assisted modeling), so I think those are the specialties, but it's tough to pick one. Everyone wants to be in implants now. You put four implants in a patient's mouth and fixed dentures or fixed bridges screw onto those. Denture wearers are tired of putting them in and taking them out. More oral surgeons and general dentists are starting to do that now, and demand for high-tech restorations is exploding because of it.

eHow: Do you have any insider tips for anyone considering a career in the dental laboratory?

Iocco: Focus on the new techniques. The laboratory of the future -- which I think is now -- is not going to be staffed by someone who's working 12 hours a day with 40-year-old, proven techniques. Our profession faced very little technological change for decades, but now it's rampant with 3-D printing, scanning, designing, milling -- it's amazing. Dentists are getting more comfortable taking digital impressions, and that means we have less opportunity for errors. I think we're at the beginning of another golden age in dental laboratory technology.

About Gary Iocco

Gary Iocco majored in business at DePaul University and Winona State University. He opened Dimension Dental Studio, now Dimension Dental Design, in 1982. He is a longtime advocate of higher standards within the industry, and advised Minnesota's state government on its recent legislation regulating dental laboratories. He is past-president of the Midwest Dental Laboratory Association, president of the National Association of Dental Laboratories, and a sought-after speaker within the dental laboratory industry.