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Dental assistants at work

Dental assistants Jenni Beck, Nicole Bryson and Ashley Schwarz care for a patient at Brewer Dental on Central Avenue. Brewer Dental is starting a dental assisting school. Classes begin Tuesday. A capacity group of 16 students is enrolled.

The national shortage of dental assistants is being felt in Billings, too, and it won’t get better anytime soon.

Much of the demand is being pushed by the growing wave of senior citizens, who are living longer and taking better care of their teeth.

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.

Brewer Dental in Billings has decided it won't wait around.

On Tuesday, the inaugural class of 16 students begins studies at the Dental Assisting School-Brewer Dental Education Center. A second, eight-week course is scheduled to begin in September.

Dental assistants, who earn an average $31,190 annually, help dentists with a variety of treatment procedures and use dental instruments and materials.

Plans for the Dental Assisting School have been in the works for six years and were accelerated as Brewer Dental found itself in perpetual recruitment mode, said the school’s director, Dr. E. Wade Wilde.

Compounding the shortage was the quality of candidates, he said. Many of the assistants they hired lacked skills.

The school offers the students hands-on experience and training in endodontics, orthodontics, dentures, oral surgery, sedation, dental implants, pedodontics and more.

"It's energizing to think we can make a difference," Wilde said.

Students in the Dental Assisting School will be taught by Brewer Dental staffers at the 2900 Central Ave. office. Eventually, the school will move into a nearby location to allow for expansion.

Brewer Dental currently employs 43 dental assistants in its three locations and could use about six more, Wilde said. Brewer Dental will employ everyone who finishes the program — at least for a short time. Some will be selected for permanent, long-term employment.

“We did this for selfish reasons,” Wilde said. “But it will benefit the entire community. Dentists are always looking for skilled assistants with experience.”

Dave Hemion, executive director of the Montana Dental Association, said Brewer Dental’s program will be good for both Billings and the region.

“Dentists are always looking for someone who has that basic grounding,” Hemion said. “They are looking for quality.”

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.