Do I Need to Go to School to Become a Dental Laboratory Technician?

DentalPost takes a look at the benefits, career prospects, and things to consider when choosing a Dental Laboratory Technician school.

As a dental laboratory technician, you help patients maintain or reclaim their dental health and appearance. With the dental appliances you craft, dental patients can have gaps or cracks in teeth filled and teeth straightened. An aging population, risks of tooth damage from motor vehicle crashes or other traumatic events, the prospect of oral diseases (including cancers) and the lowering cost of dental devices grow the demand for the skills of a lab technician.

As you’ll see below, becoming a dental lab technician requires some education especially if you seek certification or wish to manage or own a dental laboratory.

The Dental Lab Technician Job Description

Depending on where you work, your job duties have you handling small hand tools, small objects, computer aided design and computer aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM), and high-temperature appliances. To produce dental prostheses, you work with materials such as ceramics, porcelain, plastics, acrylic, wax and plastic.

As a dental laboratory technician, you perform tasks such as:

  • Reading, comprehending and following prescriptions and orders
  • Determining the materials to use for dental appliances or impressions
  • Use computers and software to design or print prototypes
  • Design crowns, bridges and other dental appliances
  • Build temporary crowns, which a dental hygienist in certain states (with training) can apply to patients
  • Melt wax and other materials
  • Pour materials into molds for dentures, crowns and other appliances
  • Bend and shape materials
  • Bake porcelain or ceramic dental appliances in ovens
  • Polish and edge dentures, crowns, and bridges
  • Prepare trays and bite blocks
  • Repair dentures, frames and bands

With the duties in mind, your job search can include titles such as orthodontic laboratory technician, porcelain technician, model and dye person, waxer, metal finisher and denture technician.

The Skill Set

You need solid technical skills to perform many of the job duties as a dental laboratory technicians. Dental prosthodontics involves computers, machines and hand tools. Handling small and sharp tools and materials requires dexterity with your hands and fingers.

A dental laboratory technician should have good interpersonal skills. In commercial dental laboratories or other larger employers, you’ll likely work in a team and handle a particular phase of the production. You need the ability to listen, communicate and respond effectively to others who might warn you of problems with equipment, tools or materials or might notice a defect in products.

The Basic Educational Requirements

A high school diploma or GED serves as the minimal educational requirement for a lab tech job. For some employers, a diploma will suffice to get a position. If you’re thinking in high school about a dental tech job or other role in the dental profession, take classes such as biology, chemistry, math, computer science and anatomy. High school courses in art help hone your creative design skills and the ability to use small tools that require manual or finger dexterity.

Going beyond high school can enhance your qualifications and prospects for employment. According to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET), nearly 39 percent of dental lab techs hold either a post-secondary certificate or associate degree. You can earn a certificate or associates degree from a technical college, community colleges or and post-secondary dental program. Some four-year colleges offer Bachelor of Science in the field.

What to Expect in a Dental Laboratory Technology Program

While the offerings may differ by program, expect that your curriculum will cover subjects such as dental laboratory practice, basics of computers, the various types of dental appliances, scientific or health research, writing, measurements and mathematical literacy or vocabulary. You’ll study techniques for using materials and even delve into physical science. Depending on the program, you might get formal training as part of your education.

Becoming a Certified Dental Lab Technician

Certification is not a legal requirement to get technician jobs. However, having certified in your job titles shows employers you have strong knowledge and technical skills to distinguish you from other job candidates.

The National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology, an independent body formed by the National Association of Dental Laboratories, certifies laboratory techs in six specialties. These include:

  • Ceramics
  • Complete dentures
  • Partial dentures
  • Crowns & Bridges
  • Orthodontics
  • Implants

To achieve the prize of being a Certified Dental Technician (CDT), you must pass a “Written Comprehensive Examination,” “Written Specialty Examination” and a “Practical” examination. You take the practical examination in the same specialty as the written specialty exam.

The Requirements

The type of educational program and your level of lab tech experience determines what you need to become a CDT.

If you’re new to the field, you must complete a two-year dental laboratory program accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation (CODA) of the American Dental Association (ADA). The Association provides a database for accredited dental laboratory technician programs. Once you graduate from the program, you will need two years of experience to sit for the certification exam.

For those who don’t attend a CODA-accredited dental lab technology program, the path to certification involves five years of experience. You can meet this five-year experience requirement through an apprenticeship or from on-the-job work as part of your formal course of study.

Becoming a “Recognized Graduate,” or what CODA calls an “RG,” you must pass a “Recognized Graduate” test within a year of graduation. If you do and obtain the “RG” status, then you earn the Certified Dental Technician title without needing prior work experience. Recognized Graduates who participated in programs not accredited by CODA need three years of work experience.

Who Employs Dental Lab Technicians?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, the United States had 36,200 dental lab techs in 2019. The Bureau’s Occupational Employment Statistics page for this profession reports 28,400 work in “Medical Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing” companies. Dentist offices employed another 4,690.

Beyond commercial dental laboratories and dental offices, you can also find jobs with the Veterans’ Administration and college and university dental schools. If you work for a dentist, you might have your hand in many, if not the majority or all, of the aspects of producing the dental appliance. Those techs who work for dental device companies usually focus on a particular phase of production.

Your dental laboratory technician job will likely afford full-time hours. If you work for a manufacturer, you might have evening or night-time shifts. Technicians employed in dental offices likely will work regular business hours.

Career Prospects and Advancement

The Bureau of Labor Statistics sets the average pay for dental laboratory technicians in the United States at $44,330 per year, or $21.31 per hour. The median technicians’ salaries stand at $41,340 annually, or $19.87 per hour. If you land in the 90th percentile of dental lab techs, you’re likely to earn at least $65,820, or $31.64 per hour.

Attending a dental lab technology program can prepare you for a career in other fields of dentistry. Students in college-level lab programs may have tracks to become dental sales representatives for dental prosthetics manufacturers, wholesalers or suppliers.

You may parlay your education and experience into roles supervising other technicians, owning your own laboratory or holding other roles in the dental profession. At some universities, dental technology constitutes part of the pre-dentistry path if you aspire to become a dental hygienist or dentist.

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