Long before a shortage of dental assistants became a nationwide trend, Dr. William B. Winterholler recognized a void in his own backyard — in Billings.
In June 2008, Winterholler started the Billings Academy of Dental Assisting at 3737 Grand Ave. with Winterholler Dentistry serving as a hands-on training facility.
“There was a need,” Winterholler said. “There was no training program in the area.”
Today, five years later, at least 66 dental assistants have graduated from the Academy, which boasts a 70 percent placement rate. The bulk of the graduates have found jobs in Montana and Wyoming, with one even finding employment in Pittsburg. The graduates are working for oral surgeons, orthodontists, general dentists and pediatric dentists.
At least one 12-week course is offered each year, sometimes two. The next course, which costs $4,250, begins Aug. 20 and interest is high. At least half of the course is hands-on training under the guidance of program director Lynda Hilling. She is a master dental assistant, one of only two reported in the state.
“This program isn’t for our benefit,” Hilling said. “It’s strictly a training program so the graduates can go work in another office.”
Much of the demand for dental assistants is being pushed by the growing wave of senior citizens, who are living longer and taking better care of their natural teeth. By the year 2025, nearly one in four Montanans will have surpassed the age of 65, jumping from about 100,000 senior citizens now to 240,000. In fact, Montana is already projected to rank fourth in the nation in percentage of seniors by 2015.
In 2010, there were 297,200 dental assistants employed in the United States. Although the dental-assistant profession is one of the fastest-growing occupations – it’s expected to grow 31 percent by 2020 – it isn’t growing fast enough.
As dentists' workloads increase, they will need to hire assistants to perform routine tasks so that they can devote time to more detailed procedures.
In addition to the increasing demand, more job openings for dental assistants will surface as older assistants leave the occupation. For some, this entry level occupation serves as a stepping stone to more highly skilled and higher paying jobs.
Other assistants leave the job to take on family responsibilities, return to school or for other reasons, resulting in a constant turnover rate.
Still, Winterholler said, there is a delicate balancing act.
“Our goal is not to flood the market and have a lot of students who can’t find a job,” Winterholler said.
Dental assistants, who earn an average $31,190 annually, are similar to nurses in that they are the dentist’s right hand. They help dentists with a variety of treatment procedures and use dental instruments and materials. The dental assistant is directly beside the dentist, handing over instruments, preparing materials, and holding the hands of frightened patients.
It's a demanding profession, as assistants have to work closely with the individual patient. The patient is often apprehensive, so the assistant must be a people person since they often have to deal directly with patients in a stressful situation.
To that end, all students who enroll in the Billings Academy of Dental Assisting are interviewed to ensure they are a good fit for the profession and that they will be successful in the Academy, Winterholler said.
At least one other private dental office in Billings has a similar training program. Various dental-assistant programs are also offered through Billings School District 2, the state university system and tribal colleges.
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