Job market wide open for dental hygienists

If you want a health care career that pays well, is in demand and offers flexible scheduling, dental hygiene may give you plenty to smile about.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, dental hygienist employment is projected to grow in Georgia by 2,240 jobs (about 35 percent) from 2010 to 2020 . That’s an annual growth rate of 3 percent.

The entry-level wage for a dental hygienist in Georgia is about $22 an hour and the average full-time salary is $65,100 a year, or $31.30 an hour, the GDOL reports. A seasoned pro can earn as much as $39 an hour.

Joanna Harris, an instructor in Clayton State University’s dental hygiene department in Morrow, was encouraged to enter the field by her father and her family dentist in North Carolina.

“I wanted to do something in the medical profession, but I didn’t know if I wanted to be a nurse and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time in college preparing for my career,” Harris said. “My dad is actually the one who suggested that I observe a dental hygienist, and our dentist agreed to let me do some observations in his office. I was intrigued by the job, I liked what I was seeing and I could get a degree in two years and go to work.”

Dental hygiene training at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina launched Harris’ career, then she worked for seven years as a full- and part-time hygienist while she continued her college education.

“Once I got that taste of college education, I went into public health at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and got a bachelor of science in health education in 2004, then went on to get my master’s degree in dental hygiene education at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2008.”

“With an associate degree you are limited to private practice dentistry,” she said. “With more training you can go anywhere in the field — working for a periodontist, for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), in corporate or public health or teaching — but you do need broader education for those expanded careers.”

Harris teaches full time at Clayton State while she works toward her next degree, a doctorate of education in adult education at the University of Georgia.

Important role

Dental hygienists promote oral health and wellness. A key responsibility in a dental office is cleaning patients’ teeth. They remove plaque, calculus and stains from teeth, take dental X-rays and apply flourides and sealants to protect teeth.

Hygienists work with filling materials and periodontal dressings, remove sutures and perform root-planing. They examine the patient’s oral cavity to look for diseases and abnormalities, record their findings, and follow up with patients to develop a hygiene plan.

While hygienists don’t diagnose diseases, they do prepare clinical and laboratory diagnostic tests for dentists to interpret, and they assist dentists during treatment. Many hygienists work part time or full time for one or more dentists, a flexibility that’s attractive to working parents and those who want to continue their education.

According to the American Dental Hygienists Association, every state requires dental hygienists to be licensed. Steps toward licensure are graduating from a dental hygiene training program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation and passing a written national board examination and a clinical examination.

Clayton State University students are required to complete 30 hours of core curriculum courses (such as English, math, science, critical thinking, communication and humanities) with a minimum 2.5 grade point average before beginning the two-year dental hygiene program. General education credits from other colleges may transfer, so it’s possible for students who have attended college previously to earn a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene in as little as two years once they satisfy the core course requirements.

Dental hygiene students learn about anatomy, histology, radiology, dental hygiene, pharmacology, periodontics, dental health and pathology, and management/marketing, and are required to complete an internship.

A hallmark of Clayton State’s clinical training is a public dental hygiene clinic, located on campus, where students provide dental cleanings and other treatments under faculty supervision. Students get hands-on clinical experience while providing a needed service at affordable rates to the public.

'Challenging work’

“I like working with both ends of the spectrum — children and adults,” said Ashley McKinnon, a senior in Clayton State’s dental hygiene program. “With children, you have to find different ways to motivate them to take responsibility for their own oral hygiene. This is my opportunity to help children, to tell them something that perhaps they didn’t know before.

“It is very challenging work, but the educational support we get from the faculty is outstanding. They even offer free tutoring to be sure we get the support that we need.”

McKinnon decided to enroll at Clayton State after she had worked for several years at a nonprofit clinic for medically underserved people. The experience left an indelible impression.

“So many patients there needed dental restorations for problems that could have been prevented,” she said. “I also like being able to explain procedures in terms that my patients can understand because there is such a strong correlation between oral health and overall health.”

McKinnon will graduate in May 2014 and already has some ideas about her future.

“Mainly, I’m excited about finishing my degree and accomplishing something,” she said. “I think I’d like to work in pediatric dentistry, doing cleanings and orthodontics. And maybe one day I’d like to work for a manufacturing company like Oral-B, Johnson & Johnson or Crest. This training opens up several of avenues to explore.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.