Is the U.S. dental hygienist market saturated?

2009 10 28 09 40 23 4 Woman Dentist 70 V2

As the overall job market in the U.S. continues to be sluggish, a few recent reports -- which considered hiring outlook as a criterion -- have ranked dental hygienist among the top 10 professions in the country.

But the reality is that in many parts of the country hygienists are having a hard time finding work, according to many in the field.

What accounts for the discrepancy?

Primarily the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), according to Caren Barnes, RDH, a professor in the department of dental hygiene at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry.

"They publish statistics that say this is a high growth area, while the job markets are actually saturated," she told

“It has been very difficult for new graduates to find jobs in the last five years.”
— Caren Barnes, RDH

According to the bureau's Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2010-2011, dental hygienist ranks among the fastest-growing occupations, and job prospects are expected to be favorable in most areas, although competition is likely in some areas.

Todd Jonson, an economist with the BLS, said that they make these projections by looking at both current trends and future labor markets.

"When you have projections looking 10 years ahead, you can't expect to be dead-on," he explained.

While reports of qualified hygienists being unable to find work could be true, he added, these reports are coming from individuals, while the BLS is looking at national trends.

Caryn Solie, RDH, president of the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA), said that the BLS used a census survey for these projections that indicates there is a growing need in the population for the professional services of dental hygienists.

"However, due to a variety of factors -- including the impact of the recession -- we have seen that in some portions of the country traditional clinical practice jobs are in short supply," she added. "This is not an issue that is unique to dental hygienists, and we do feel that growing opportunities in the field will help to alleviate some of these issues."

Too many graduates

According to the BLS, the market for dental hygienists is expected to grow 36% through 2018.

Solie said that these statistics are looking more at long-range data and projections for the future, while the current reality is that in some areas of the country, clinical jobs in dental practices are harder to find.

Barnes agreed, noting that the job market for hygienists in the U.S. has been slowing during the past five years.

"The major reason for the market slowing down is that there are too many graduates and not enough positions open," she said. "Also, because of the economic recession, there is a low turnover rate as people are not leaving their jobs."

Hygiene programs need to re-evaluate their class sizes, Barnes added.

"There are over 300 hygiene programs [in the U.S.], and it has been very difficult for new graduates to find jobs in the last five years," she said.

According to Solie, various factors have contributed to the current situation, including the following:

  • The recession
  • Many hygienists staying in the workforce longer and not retiring as early as they used to
  • Fewer new jobs for hygienists who are just entering the job market

Finding new opportunities

New graduates should consider the diverse opportunities available to them in the dental hygiene profession, according to Barnes, noting that the majority of dental hygiene graduates look for work at a private practice.

"They need to look beyond private practice at options like public health, dental education, and research," she said.

They can also focus on getting a bachelor's or master's degree, which increases their employment options.

"The master's program adds qualifications for other opportunities such as educator and researcher," she explained.

Other possibilities include the ADHA advanced practitioner in dental hygiene and the midlevel provider role that was recently introduced in Minnesota and is being considered in other states, Barnes added.

Solie agrees that the midlevel provider model could create new opportunities for existing and future hygienists.

"It's always difficult to predict to the future of job markets and dental hygiene is no exception, but we feel that as the new advanced practice models come to fruition, and as practice acts change in the states to allow direct access to hygienists, there will be a greater opportunity for hygienists to practice in new ways," she concluded.

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