More men opting to become dental assistants, hygienists

2012 06 13 12 01 18 895 2012 06 20 Upadya Ware 70

When New Jersey dentist Raj Upadya, DMD, decided recently to hire another dental assistant, seven qualified, experienced people applied.

Of those seven, he ultimately hired one of the two men who applied. According to Dr. Upadya and a growing number of dental professionals, "pink collar" jobs traditionally held by women -- such as dental assistants and hygienists -- may be a thing of the past.

"One of the things that struck me most was his personal skills; he was excellent to talk to," Dr. Upadya, told DrBicuspid.com, referring to Jason Ware, CDA, the only other male now employed in his five-person practice. "You can train people on a lot of things who aren't qualified, but you can't train personality."

Even so, hiring a male instead of a female assistant did give Dr. Upadya pause. "It definitely entered my mind," he admitted. "I thought, 'Wow, this will be a first!' "

The only other man Dr. Upadya, 42, had worked with in the past eight years had been a male dentist.

Ware, who has worked for a few other dentists during his six-year career, said he was surprised when a woman instructor in the dental assistant program he graduated from tried to dissuade him from entering the profession.

"She pulled me aside and said, 'You should really think about what you're doing,' " he told DrBicuspid.com. "She said it was going to be very difficult for me because most patients are much more comfortable with women. I actually heard that a few times in school, and I found it offensive."

A soft touch

Instead, Ware said he's been overwhelmed by the positive responses he's received from patients, including letters of commendation.

"I think people expect something different when I walk into the room," he said. "Partly because I'm a guy, they expect me to be a bit of a brute, but I seem to exceed their expectations. People have said, 'Wow, you have such a soft touch.' I often hear that I have a great bedside manner and that I'm really gentle."

Dr. Raj Upadya (left) and his new dental assistant, Jason Ware. Image courtesy of Jason Ware.Dr. Raj Upadya (left) and his new dental assistant, Jason Ware. Image courtesy of Jason Ware.
Dr. Raj Upadya (left) and his new dental assistant, Jason Ware. Image courtesy of Jason Ware.

Ware believes there is a residual stigma about working in what has been considered a woman's profession. "Occasionally, my female friends are surprised, and sometimes I get a little grief from my guy friends," he said.

According to Dr. Upadya, a male patient even took the time as he left the office recently to tell Ware how nice it was to meet him.

Shannon Pace-Brinker, CDA, CDD, who has been teaching dental assisting programs for 17 years, said most male assistants come from the military. She thinks the economic recession has played a part in men going after jobs that have previously been primarily held by women.

"I think a lot of men are losing their jobs in the medical field, like pharmaceutical reps, and they don't want to leave the healthcare profession, so they're coming over to the dental side," she told DrBicuspid.com. "A lot of them are parents, and they figure they can go to school for two years and be an assistant, or go for four years and be a hygienist. I think we're going see more and more assistants as males."

Such jobs are usually very stable, an appealing proposition in an unstable job market, she added, noting that she worked for a dental office that didn't have an opening for 20 years.

"If you get a good job working for a dentist, they don't want to let you go," she said.

Now, more and more dentists require experienced assistants, a change from when dentists were willing to train their own assistants.

"It's really challenging for assistants, because you've got to get out there and take CE classes and make sure you have your certifications," Pace-Brinker said. "Those jobs where you get trained on the job are changing. They want qualified assistants now because there are a lot of us."

More male applicants needed

There are currently more than 250,000 dental assistants in the U.S., Pace-Brinker added, noting that regardless of whether male or female, most dental assistants are paid about the same salary.

While it doesn't matter to some dentists what gender their assistants are, she noted, others definitely have preferences.

"It's based on qualifications, but I think some dentists really like that these men have gone through the military," she said. "And yet I know some dentists who would not work with male assistants because they want to be in control, and a lot of time when you have two men that can be a challenge. But a majority will tell you they like guys for assistants. And maybe having a little more testosterone in the office helps too."

Pam Steinbach, RN, the education director for the American Dental Hygienists' Association, said some of the 344 dental hygienist education programs in the U.S. have noticed more male applicants.

In the U.S., 7,294 dental assistants graduated in 2011: 342 men and 6,952 women, according to an ADA report. That same year, 7,000 dental hygienists in the U.S. graduated: 186 men and 6,814 women.

But Nancy Young, RDH, an associate professor and the director of the dental hygiene program at the Indiana University School of Dentistry, said the program hasn't had a noticeable increase in male students.

"I wish there were more male applicants," she told DrBicuspid.com. The current class has only three men among 120 students.

"When I talk to male graduates, some say they think some dentists only want female applicants, but they all get jobs and they're doing well," Young said. "I think it depends on the personality of the applicant and the employer, and how they match up."

Marion Manski, RDH, acting program director and director of admissions of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry Dental Hygiene Program, said she also hasn't seen a surge of male applicants. Usually, only two or three males are among 80 applicants for the program. Conversely, more than half of the 130 students in the dental school are now women, reflecting a trend she has noticed in the past decade.

The biggest factor driving the uptick in male applicants for positions in dental offices is the tough job market, according to Pace-Brinker.

"I think everybody is just trying to survive," she said.

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