Tuesday, December 11, 2018

A Career with Teeth

Holly Harper, Director of Rio Salado College’s Dental Hygienist program (Photo by Mark Moran)

Holly Harper was poolside at her new apartment building not long after moving from Oklahoma to California when the payphone rang. It was 1989.

Harper and her husband were so new to town that they didn’t have a phone in their apartment yet. So, she searched the newspaper classified ads for a job as a dental hygienist and made calls from the payphone by the pool.

“We didn’t have cell phones then,” Harper says chuckling. “I had just moved there and I needed a job, so I would look at advertisements in the newspaper and make calls on the payphone and tell them when I’d be by that phone if they wanted to call me.”

For Harper, the call came quickly. Within two weeks of packing up a U-Haul and making the cross-country move, she landed a job.

“I do remember getting the call. It was three days a week. A really great job.” Fast forward almost 20 years and while the technology has changed, the demand for dental hygienists has not. It’s still extremely high.

“Hygienists are very employable,” says Harper who now runs the dental hygienist program at Rio Salado College, which will mark its 20th anniversary next year. The school offers an accelerated 16-month, $25,000 program allowing students to enter the workplace upon graduation.

And entering the workplace they are. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the field is growing at a rate 20 percent higher than the national average for related jobs. Among the biggest reasons for the popularity of dental hygiene is the pay.

The bureau says that the average salary for a dental hygienist working 40 hours per week is about $74,000 annually, or just over $36 an hour. Another big draw is the ability to create a flexible work schedule.

“According to our last survey, our graduates are working as much as they want to,” Harper says. The demand is so high, she says, that hygienists can in large part determine their own schedules. Some want to work full time, others opt for a few days a week.

Dental Hygiene student gives advice

Dental hygiene programs are popular both for young people with a few semesters of college basics under their belt, or people making a career change.

“We like to clean in my family,’ says 37-year old student Kathy Garner. “That’s why I’m here. I actually think cleaning is pretty fun. I’m a little OCD. We hygienists are a different breed.”

Kathy Garner (Photo - Mark Moran)
Garner is a different breed indeed. She competed in the 2003 North American Championships of snowboarding, satisfying her adventurous side, she says. She worked in corporate banking until it became too stressful. 

Most recently, she has been designing trophy belt buckles for rodeo champions but wanted a backup plan. And along came dental hygiene.

“Flexibility is super important to me. If I only want to work three days a week, I can work three days a week and support myself."

Garner estimates she spends about 70 hours a week on the program by the time she figures in classes, homework and commuting time. “Your family has to be fully prepared,” she said.

Photo of dental professionals performing a service

U.S News & World Report ranks dental hygienist as the number one healthcare support job, above other popular choices such as Medical Assistant, Medical Secretary, and Massage Therapist. The publication bases its rankings on a variety of factors, including salary, employment rate, stress level, and work-life balance.

It is important to note that while the pay is relatively good for dental hygienists, upward mobility is considered low. There isn’t a lot of headroom for most hygienists beyond making slightly more money in a different dental office.

But for 44-year old Jessica Money, a single mother of six, the promise of a good salary in a quick turnaround time and a high degree of flexibility is worth the investment … and the intensity of a 16-month training course.

“You definitely marry the program,” says Money whose choice to attend hygienist school wasn’t so much a midlife job change, but a necessity.

“I had been a stay-at-home mom before my divorce and to go back into the medical background I had wasn’t enough to live on," says Money. "It would basically just be paying babysitters. So I decided to make a change. I needed to do something to take care of my kids.”

In the near future, Money says she would like to be able to save enough to buy her own house and become financially independent. She chose the 16-month program to get her coursework done quickly and get into the workforce.

Harper, the Rio Salado program manager, says that’s the typical person she sees in her program.

“We do have quite a few single moms, also some who have their bachelor’s for whom this is a second career and they want to get in here and get it done,” she said.

Garner’s competitor bib from
2003 North American Championships
of snowboarding (Photo- Kathy Garner)
This particular program has graduated about 400 students in its nearly two decades, many of whom work in dentist offices in the Phoenix metro area. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand is not going to drop any time soon.

Former snowboarder Kathy Garner is counting on that to be the case. “Anybody can do this if they put in the time and effort,” Garner said. 

By Rio Salado College Sr. Project Manager and Brand Journalist Mark Moran 

Alt text: Snapshot from Rio Salado Dental program page.  Image of dental professionals at work.  Text: Be Limitless.  Explore new opportunities in dental health.  Call 480-517-8580.  Contact an Advisor.  Rio Salado College logo.

Learn more about Rio Salado’s Dental programs at www.riosalado.edu/dental