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Re: Editorial: Staff Shortage: Yet Another Challenge to Overcome

March 15, 2022
by James Younger, DDS


In the world of dentistry, we all know that, in reality, there is no such thing as a “solo practitioner”. Even a dental office owned and run by a single dentist needs a team to create a prosperous dental practice.

And while we know the job market is inevitably cyclical, the pandemic has made it difficult for dental office owners and hiring managers to recruit and retain good people. Let’s talk about it.

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WHAT IS THE CAUSE?

COVID has caused a number of factors to converge that affect the number of quality applicants that are available to fill dental office openings:

  • Graduation cohorts of dental professionals were delayed, affecting the number of available new grads entering the workforce
  • Some have chosen early retirement or otherwise left the workforce
  • Others have chosen to work in fields other than dental
  • Some are just currently waiting to return to work until they feel safer and COVID is more under control

This “perfect storm” of factors makes for a frustrating hiring experience.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS?

As Dr. Polonsky mentioned in her editorial, this situation comes with a number of challenges for dental office owners and hiring managers.

  • Hourly rates are going up
  • There is a lot of employee turnover
  • The imbalance of demand has lead to some aggressive recruitment tactics by offices and other corporate organizations
  • Overall payroll expenses are going up
  • Team members are leaving for higher hourly rates and/or benefits
  • Existing team members who are staying are asking for higher hourly rates
  • Dental offices are in a position where they’re looking to hire anyone who is qualified for the position without the time/luxury of selecting from a pool of candidates in search of the best fit for culture and skills

HOW WIDESPREAD IS THIS?

These trends exist across North America (and really, globally). As TempStars expands into new markets in the United States, we’re hearing of the same frustrations everywhere. While of little solace, it’s important to keep in mind – this situation is not unique to the dental industry. Every industry is seeing the same challenges, from hospitality to trades and construction.

Further, we just can’t forget or avoid the fact that inflation in the fall of 2021 hit 4.7% – the highest rate in 18 years. So inevitably, this does drive up wages and salaries along with the cost of living.

WHAT CAN WE DO?

While there are always systemic improvements that can, and should, be made in public policy, government and educational infrastructure, I’m always one to think, “What solutions to this challenge lie within my direct ability to improve things? What can I do to improve the situation that doesn’t hinge on what others are doing?”

For illustrative purposes, let’s discuss two archetypical dental offices on opposite and extreme ends of the spectrum, and the differences in their experiences of finding, hiring and retaining great people.

Dental Practice “A” is owned and managed by leaders who have historically been placing a high value on treating their team well, building a healthy team culture, clarifying and living their values while prioritizing sound leadership.

A dental office like this hasn’t suddenly decided these things are important because of a pandemic, but rather those values are baked into the leadership and management style of the owner(s) and manager(s).

This dental office has spent years building a reputation as a great place to work with salaries and wages that reflect the skills and values of a high-performing team. They have an aligned team and effective systems in place that set everyone up for success. Owners and managers of a dental office like this model the behaviours they want to see in teams, act as an inspiration and help their team feel energized doing work that matters.

When a dental office like this is looking to fill an opening on their team, they typically wouldn’t have to post the position – they’ve built and nurtured a network of great dental professionals and others in the dental space.

So typically they get quality applicants via word-of-mouth. And those they hire to their team develop a “missionary” mindset – they believe in the Mission, Vision and Values of the office and are a great fit for the healthy team culture. Missionaries like this are much more likely to be retained by a good dental office.

Dental Practice “B” is on the extreme opposite side of the spectrum. The office manager and/or dentist treat their team poorly, are rude and demeaning and don’t treat their team with respect and
professionalism. They have no defined values or culture, and their management and leadership styles are abrasive and condescending.

An office like this places little value on the positive work experience of their team, but rather relies on keeping the professional esteem of their employees low, so they feel “lucky to have a job.” Dental Practice “B” compensates the bare minimum to fill the position and will keep positive feedback to a bare minimum, lest someone thinks they’re doing a good job and asks for a raise.

In this current job market, Dental Practice “B” will have a very hard time finding and hiring good people. And even if they do, those employees will likely have their resumes submitted for other jobs and jump ship for an extra few dollars without hesitation.

Dental Practice “B” would need to offset the poor working experience of their team by offering higher than average compensation – and even then, they would only be able to hire “Mercenaries” (as opposed to “Missionaries”). Someone on a team with a “Mercenary” mind-set doesn’t believe in the Vision or Culture of the business, but is working strictly for the money and will quickly chase the next job if it pays a little more.

Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not saying that if you’re struggling to find, hire and retain a great team, that you’re a bad boss or toxic manager. Everyone is struggling with this problem in the
COVID environment. The above offices are caricatures at the extreme ends of the spectrum for illustrative purposes – your dental office just falls somewhere between them.

But if you are struggling to find, hire and retain good people, it’s worth exploring if there is room and opportunity to start shifting your office culture, leadership, management style and systems in a way that can make it easier to build and keep a great team.

Even from a strict business standpoint, investments in improving the work experience of your team are well worth it, to build an environment that attracts and retains great people with a “missionary mindset” long term.

About hiring with the “sink or swim” method: The idea of the “sink or swim” mindset is – hire someone and let them prove on their own that they can “swim” at your office.

The important point here is: Using this strategy, maybe 10% of people will “swim”. By investing in creating proper searching/hiring/onboarding systems, you’re going to multiply the number of people who can ‘swim’ at your office – because you’re coaching them and teaching them about the pool and how to swim. Before they touch the water and once they get in.

This is a sound principle in any job market, but especially these days when applicants might not be flooding in to apply for your openings, you want to have systems in place that set as many people up for success at your office as possible.

It’s becoming apparent that navigating this job market is just a fact of life right now, but there is solace in knowing – the more time and effort you invest in creating a great work experience for your team and setting them up for success, the less susceptible your team will be to losing someone. But let’s be honest – no matter how great your office is to work at, you still have to pay respectable rates relative to the job market – those on your team need to know that they’re being paid what they’re worth.

KEY TAKE-AWAYS

  • Create and value a great work experience for your team
  • Create systems for finding, hiring, training new team members.
  • Build and improve operational systems so you have a much larger pool of applicants who can succeed at your office.
  • Pay people what they’re worth relative to the job market
  • Expand and strengthen your network and relationships with great dental professionals.

Because you have to realize, it really never ends. Even in the best of circumstances, finding, hiring and retaining a great team is an ongoing process – there is always going to be some degree of
turnover, and hopefully your practice is on a growth path that requires hiring additional people to your team.

I know we all want to shake our fists at the world right now, and it’s fine to take those moments to rail against the situation. But ultimately, it’s up to us as owners, leaders and managers to succeed
and rise to the occasion. And the more you value and prioritize setting up strong culture, leadership, management and operational systems, the more “pandemic-proof” your team will be.


About the Author

Dr. James Younger is a practicing dentist and the Founder/CEO of TempStars, Canada’s largest and #1 rated dental temping and hiring service. Connecting over 4,000 dental offices with more than 14,000 dental hygienists and assistants, Dr. Younger is passionate about providing insights and perspective on dental leadership, building healthy teams and the “pulse” of the dental job market.


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4 Comments » for Re: Editorial: Staff Shortage: Yet Another Challenge to Overcome
  1. Dental Staff says:

    Very well said Dr! Respect.

  2. Sarah says:

    I’ve been working for 17 years and I am about to jump ship from my practice because I am not being valued for my years of service either in a welcoming style of leadership or financially. I consistent go above and beyond, train the revolving door of new hires, enhance my own skills with courses paid for by your truly etc.
    It’s their short-sightedness and their loss. To beg for a raise is not something I’m willing to do when I can literally walk one block away and increase my rate 10% in addition to finding an office that values their team.
    Adios amigo

    • Anonymous says:

      This is the problem. Dedicated, hard working, and knowledgeable employees go unnoticed while the ‘fly under radar’ people mesmerize the boss with the time and ability to constantly find every fault of every other person in the office. Quite sad really! Well said Sarah, thinking of you!

      • Toothpick says:

        Wow! So true. This happens in so many offices. Those that do the bare minimum and those that pick up the slack.

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