If you're looking for a good-paying job in South Florida — even working part-time — you might consider a career as a dental hygienist.
"You don't have to have a bachelor's degree, and you can make $50,000 to $60,000 [annually] working four days a week in South Florida," said Nora Powell, associate dean for the dental hygienist program at Broward College.
Programs require classroom, online and clinical training from one to two years to earn an associate's degree. Some students go on to earn their bachelor's in health science.
Median wages for dental hygienists are $32 an hour in Broward and $30 an hour in Palm Beach County, according to data from Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity. Experienced professionals make closer to $35 an hour, Powell said.
But you do have to like people and endure sometimes tedious work that requires physical agility, local dental hygienists say. And while hours may be flexible, there aren't always health care or other benefits with part-time work.
Dental hygienist Pauline Mann's position at a Fort Lauderdale dental group is so flexible she has been able to work as a flight attendant as well for the past 12 years.
"I like the balance of both," said Mann, who adds that she never has the same schedule during any week or month.
Mann also likes the pay, but she works fewer days as a hygienist than she once did. The physical part of working as a dental hygienist — getting in the best position to work on a patient — takes its toll on the body, she said.
"Most of my friends around my age are down to one day a week," said Mann, 51.
Besides working in a dental office, job options for dental hygienists include education, research, lobbying, public health and working for pharmaceutical companies.
But before you sign up for a dental hygienist program, know that the field is becoming increasingly competitive.
Linnette Dobbs-Fuller, who directs continuing education for dental hygienists at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, said wages are starting to be affected by the influx of foreign dentists, many coming to South Florida from South America. Foreign dentists are allowed to work as hygienists in Florida while they are training for board certification.
"The foreign dentists will take a lower salary and that affects the salary of dental hygienists in general," she said.
New graduates can increase their chances of getting a job and earning good pay by obtaining additional training and certifications.
Dental hygienists get paid about twice as much per hour as those trained only as dental assistants, for example. Being trained as both a dental hygienist, who cleans teeth and educates patients, and a dental assistant, who can help the dentist with procedures, is advantageous.
Powell said dentists likely would choose someone with multiple certifications when hiring.
Broward College offers a 12-month dental hygienist program for certified dental assistants that costs about $11,000 for in-state student tuition, lab fees, books, accreditation tests and other expenses.
For the 10-month dental assistant program only, the cost is about $9,000. The student earns a technical diploma.
Graduates have to take exams to pass the Florida board and become accredited by the American Dental Association.
Florida law changed in 2012, allowing dental hygienists to administer anesthesia, and that's helping to raise salaries, said Nova's Dobbs-Fuller. But they first have to become certified to do anesthesia. Nova offers a 60-hour course, currently $1,300, she said.
Sharon Lawson, 42, has been working for a dental practice in Hollywood for 23 years and has certifications as an assistant and hygienist. She originally become a dental hygienist because she likes medical science but found the career also suited her life as a wife and mother of three children.
Recently, Lawson finished her training to administer anesthesia to patients. Cross-training as a dental hygienist and dental assistant is smart, she said.
"When you're a hygienist, and you have down time or your patient doesn't show, you can jump in to help [the dentist] with fillings or take an X-ray when you're cross-trained," she said. "I love dental assisting because of the variety. What I love about hygiene is that patient rapport."
While the dentist may see a patient only once a year for an annual check-up, the hygienist may see a patient every three or four months for a teeth cleaning. Lawson said when the dentist recommends a procedure, patients often will turn to the dental hygienist they've come to trust and say, "What do you think?"
"You become more and more valuable," she said.
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Dental Hygienist and Assistant Careers in South Florida
Jobs: 3.5 to 3.9 percent annual growth for dental hygienists through 2020; less growth for dental assistant-only jobs
Wages: $25 to $33 average hourly for hygienists; $17 an hour for assistants
Training: Associate's degree, individual certifications
Sources: Broward College, Nova Southeastern University, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity