earnings glass ceiling

Over the last three years, the dental industry has seen its ups and downs. The pandemic forced us all into a giant pause. And in that pause, we began reviewing everything in our lives––our values, beliefs, needs, wants, and desires. Some of us are even rethinking our purposes, careers, and life paths. So it stands to reason that as we contemplate and reevaluate these critical aspects of our personal and professional lives, we will begin to question whether we are getting what we need out and want from them. If we aren’t, we will make life changes to get what we need to be in balance. 

Because of this, DentalPost has been intentional about asking our collective community to share their insights and mindsets around these topics. In smaller surveys and our recently released most comprehensive survey, DentalPost’s Annual Salary Survey, we heard from many dental professionals collectively that they are frustrated with their inability to increase their income in the dental practices where they work. In the comprehensive report, we dive into all the aspects of job satisfaction. But for this article, we will talk specifically about actual earnings and wages. 

Is the Earnings Glass Ceiling Real? 

If yes, at what level of experience, do wage increases slow down or stop?

DentalPost’s salary survey tracks the average and the median income for each profession by years of experience. The survey results reported below are based on respondents who work more than 30 hours per week.

Note: To see the average and median income for each profession, compared by years of experience, see DentalPost’s online salary survey report.

Dental Hygienists:

Forty percent of responding dental hygienists earn $70,000 to $90,000 per year. Only 10% earn more than $90,000. Survey data indicates the average income of full-time dental hygienists peaks between 10 to 19 years in practice. A significant 83.5% are paid an hourly wage. In this year’s survey, many respondents reported they have decided to take control of their financial goals in various ways. These ways include working at temp agencies that pay more per hour or as independent temp workers and negotiating a higher rate. Additionally, they may apply for new jobs to receive a higher offer or renegotiate their compensation to stay put. Some respondents even decided to work secondary jobs inside and outside of dentistry for the extra money. The post-COVID economy has provided many examples of dental hygienists stepping up with confidence to attain their income goals. 

Interestingly, dental hygienists in the experience range of 20-29 years make an average of $1,000 less than those who started their careers in the preceding decade and $2,000 less than those who began their careers in the following decade. This experience group is not working fewer hours on average than other experience groups. 

Starting wages can have a lifetime impact on income. When those with 20 to 29 years of experience began their careers, economic conditions could have given them a lower wage to start. There was a sharp slowdown in the economy in 1995. The economy started to pick up in 1996, 1998 was better, and then the recession of 2001 hit and kept unemployment stubbornly at 5% that year. This year’s salary data may give RDHs with 20 to 29 years of experience added impetus to renegotiate pay.

View Full Dental Hygienist Salary Survey Report

Dental Assistants:

Survey results indicate the average income of full-time dental assistants steadily rises with years of experience, but the increase is only slight after 15 to 19 years. The average income of those with 25+ years of experience is 5% more than those with less than 20 years. Just 14% earn more than $50,000. 

View Full Dental Assistant Salary Survey Report

Dental Practice Managers:

Dental practice managers who entered the workforce within the last three years have a higher average annual income than those with 4 to 30+ years of experience. Those with 20 to 29 years of experience have an average income almost identical to those with 10 to 19 years of experience. This suggests dental practice managers may reach their peak wage at ten years of experience. 

Only 10% earn more than $90,000 a year, and the highest earners occur in general and specialist practices and private and corporate practices. They also have all years of experience from less than one year to 20+ years. DentalPost has not tracked practice revenue, which cannot be examined as a contributing factor. DentalPost has tracked the size of the dental teams they manage and the basis of their compensation. The only identified distinguishing trait is that 71.25% of those earning over $90,00 are paid a salary, not an hourly wage. 

It is interesting to note that as many earning $90,000+ work with teams of 5 to 10 team members as with teams of 31+ members. 

Nearly 15% of dental practice managers have not had a pay raise in more than four years, not even a cost-of-living increase, despite having 5+ years of experience in their role. Nearly 3% of those who have been with their current employer for ten or more years reported that they have never had a pay increase.

View Full Dental Practice Manager Salary Survey Report

Billing Specialists:

Average salaries by years of experience indicate they have increasing income potential during their first ten years. Additionally, 66% work 40+ hours per week. Over 80% are paid an hourly wage. Only 10% report an annual income over $60,000.

Note that 29% of billing specialists have not received a pay increase in the last three years. Over 14% who worked for their current employer for 10+ years haven’t received a raise in the past five years.

View Full Dental Billing Specialist Salary Survey Report

Other Front Office Staff:

Comparing average income by years of experience demonstrates that front office staff continuously earn higher income over their years in dentistry. Still, nearly 60% have been with their current employer for less than five years. This is not surprising. Many were furloughed or let go during the first phase of the COVID pandemic. So, numerous dental practices were reorganized to work with limited staff. 

A significant 39% of respondents said they are “dissatisfied” to “very dissatisfied” with their income. And numerous front office team members reported they feel underappreciated and easily replaceable. This category of dental workers reported they perform a large variety of administrative tasks. Thirty-five percent also do dental assisting. One could argue the versatility of their roles, covering so many responsibilities, makes them indispensable to their employers. 

Although the data doesn’t demonstrate an earnings ceiling, employers must show their appreciation to retain front desk team members. Not only have they been onboarded and trained, but also developed into critical team members. They provide a first impression of the dental practice—answering the phones, engaging new patients, and sustaining rapport with existing patients. In a word, they are “priceless.”

View Full General Front Office Staff Member Salary Survey Report

Associate/Employee Dentists: 

Salary survey data shows that the average income of associate/employee dentists peaks between 9 to 14 years of experience. This is the case for both associates who provide implant services and those who do not. Dentists who do implant procedures earn substantially more income during their 9th to 14th year than those who do not.

The average income of private practice owners or partners in private or corporate practices is higher than that of associate dentists at all experience levels. Nearly 79% of associate dentists currently transitioning to private ownership or partnership have less than fifteen years of experience. 

View Full Dentist Salary Survey Report

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