Dental Assistant Staffing and Retention: A Strategy for Meeting the Challenge


Dental Assistant Staffing and Retention: A Strategy for Meeting the Challenge

Ronaldo De La Cruz, Director of Operations

Successful dental practice owners recognize the contribution Dental Assistants make to a smoothly run, profitable office that delivers superior patient care. They also know that it is harder than ever to find and keep good Dental Assistants. According to the January 2023 American Dental Association (ADA) Economic Outlook & Emerging Issues in Dentistry Survey, one in three dental practices was actively recruiting for this role. The same survey found 55% of practices rated filling open Dental Assistant positions as extremely challenging.

At the same time hiring managers are struggling to fill these jobs, research among Dental Assistants suggests ample opportunity to recruit Dental Assistants away from jobs they aren’t happy in. The Dental Assisting National Board’s 2022 Salary & Satisfaction Survey revealed that job satisfaction among Dental Assistants dropped 16 points from 82% in 2018 to 66% in 2022.  With this context, it is not surprising that Dental Post’s 2022 Dental Professional Salary Survey found that 27% of Dental Assistants planned to change jobs in the next year.

Keeping this critical role fully staffed with qualified team members will remain a challenge for practice owners. This month, we share our group’s approach to recruiting, developing, and retaining a strong Dental Assisting team.

Recruiting and Hiring Dental Assistants: Culture Fit is More Important Than Experience

Blue Sea Dental spent years developing and fine-tuning our practice operations model. Consistent mentoring is an important component of that model. I am currently Blue Sea Dental’s Operations Director, but I began my career with the group as a Dental Assistant. My first-hand experience with the challenges and importance of the role has helped me shape Blue Sea Dental’s program for training and developing Dental Assistants. We don’t just hand people a manual and expect them to master our standard operating procedures. We have team of excellent, experienced Dental Assistants who mentor new team members.  

Because of our established operating procedures and mentoring, we generally do not compete with other offices to recruit Dental Assistants with more than one-year experience. We value and appreciate experienced Dental Assistants and are not averse to hiring them. However, experience is never the deciding factor in who gets the job.

Our systems can be taught. Specific skills and job duties can be taught. Attitude and culture fit cannot. In filling Dental Assistant jobs the most important factor is culture fit. As we evaluate candidates we are assessing whether or not that person will fit our core values and our emotional and behavioral values. We are direct and open about our expectations. The values that guide how we treat our office, our patients, and each other are on our website for anyone to see. These values are clearly explained during the interview and again at on-boarding.

Beyond culture fit, we look for people with strong personalities. This may seem contradictory, but we feel our core values and emotional and behavioral values are consistent with strength of character. The tricky part is making sure a candidate’s personality is not so strong as to prevent willingness to learn our systems. Other traits that make a candidate appealing are consistency and self-discipline.

Avoiding Bad Hires: Desperate Times Call for More Careful Screening Measures

Being short-handed and not finding quality candidates gets frustrating for everyone involved. It may be tempting to lower standards to get the open Dental Assistant job filled. At Blue Sea Dental we never hire just to fill a slot. No matter how long it takes, we keep looking until we find someone who is a good fit. This can put a strain on the clinical teams. However, they understand that caution in hiring protects their positive work environment. So they pitch in to fill the gap until we find the right person for their team.

Our interview process is designed to prevent desperation hires. First, we do a traditional job interview. If we are considering making an offer, we invite the candidate to a second interview. This second interview is a “shadowing” interview. This is a hands-on interview where they spend part of a day working alongside one of our experienced, trusted Dental Assistants.

The shadowing interview means the candidate is evaluated not just by Human Resources and Management, but also by a co-worker. The people who the candidate will be working side by side with often pick up on culture fit issues that others may not detect. We have found this to be effective in ensuring new hires have the best possible chance of success with Blue Sea Dental.

You’ve Found the Perfect Hire. Now What?

At Blue Sea Dental, one of our mantras is “we care.” These are not just words to us. From this two-word statement flows a commitment not just to practicing caring, patient-centered dentistry but to creating healthy, positive workplaces for our teams. It begins with all team members being valued and treated with respect and consideration. This attitude starts at the top and is expected from everyone at every level. Our environment makes getting comfortable at the new job much easier and second thoughts about accepting our offer less likely.

Beyond competitive wages and bonuses, Blue Sea Dental offers good benefits. We also encourage celebrating whenever possible. We celebrate birthdays, work anniversaries, and significant life events.  We celebrate holidays, we dress up for Halloween, and we have social events outside the office. Our teams are encouraged to have fun whenever they can. In this way, our offices are nicer places to work and teams build camaraderie. Social events and in-office celebrations give new team members the opportunity to get to know their team mates and more quickly feel part of the group.

As previously mentioned, Blue Sea Dental is strong on leadership and mentoring.  We don’t believe in letting new hires sink or swim. Experienced Dental Assistants work with new hires to show them the ropes and help them learn how to excel in their role. The Dental Assistants and Dentists new hires work with provide ongoing feedback so any issues can be addressed early on. At Blue Sea Dental, we want every team member to succeed. More than that, we are willing to invest the time and effort to support that outcome.

The Secret Sauce: Retaining Your Team of Exceptional Dental Assistants

The statistics mentioned earlier about Dental Assistants being unhappy at work and planning a job change will strike fear in the heart of many a Dental Office Manager. Not us though. We know the best insurance against losing team members is providing a great work environment where team members are valued as individuals. We know we must be doing something right, because many of our Dental Assistants come to us through referrals from current employees.

We recognize and appreciate excellence in the Dental Assisting role. The best Dental Assistants practice our core values on a daily basis. They:

  • Are team-oriented,
  • Show compassion to patients and co-workers,
  • Are honest and show integrity,
  • Do quality work,
  • Strive to exceed expectations, and
  • Celebrate big and small wins.

We are intentional about keeping those team members happy.

First and foremost, we recognize the importance of Dental Assistants to the practice’s success. From their patient-facing duties to the work they do behind the scenes, Dental Assistants play a vital role in the team’s ability to deliver superior dental care, keep patients coming back, and encourage referrals.

Another way we keep our Dental Assistants happy is by providing mentoring to help them grow in their job, especially when they are new. When they gain more experience, they become the mentor to newer team members. Experienced Dental Assistants, with their knowledge of patient management, practice operations and clinical procedures, can be valuable mentors to newly graduated Dentists as they make the transition to practicing in a non-academic clinical setting. 

We invest in our Dental Assistants with frequent training and continuing education opportunities. From learning how to use 3D printing to assisting in complicated full arch restorations, Dental Assistants have many opportunities to grow in their job.

Retaining the Best: Career Paths for Dental Assistants

Regardless of efforts to make Dental Assisting a career people will stick with, there will always be those Dental Assistants who want to move into a different job with more responsibility, more earning potential, or both.

Because our group is always growing, Blue Sea Dental offers several possible career paths for Dental Assistants. Each office has one or two Lead Dental Assistants, depending on its size. Beyond the Assisting role, the clinical knowledge and experience Dental Assistants possess can lead to positions such as Assistant Office Manager, Clinical Coordinator, or Trainer.

Some Dental Assistants choose to continue their education to become Hygienists or Dentists. This is especially likely for those Assistants who practiced dentistry outside the country but need additional education to be a dental service provider in the US. If the practice is large enough that additional providers will be needed, the Dental Assistant who transitions into a Dentist or Hygienist role has an advantage over someone hired from the outside because they already know the team, how the office operates, and many of the patients.

Because so many people come into Dental Assisting at a young age, some attrition is inevitable. What can be avoided is losing a good Dental Assistant because they don’t feel appreciated, don’t have any opportunities to grow, and don’t like the work environment they come to every day. At Blue Sea Dental, we do everything possible to make sure those factors don’t become a reason for a valued team member to leave one of our practices.