Desperate to cut their teeth

Changing standards for training schools have created a flood of dental hygienists

The share of hygienists who are younger than 29 has gone up by 17 per cent

Jessika Hill /AP

Though she could use more hours, Maria Di Bartolomeo, who works in three different  dental offices, considers herself “pretty lucky.” That’s because the 23-year-old from Woodbridge, Ont., is a recently graduated dental hygienist practising in the profession’s toughest provincial market. “Right now I have to take what I can get,” says Di Bartolomeo, who splits her time between offices in Woodbridge, Richmond Hill and Etobicoke. Competition to land even a few hours a week is ruthless, she says: “There are just stacks and stacks of resumés that come in.” And graduates are so desperate for a job they’re willing to work for as little as $20 an hour—about 30 per cent less than the going rate in recent years for newly minted hygienists.

Every source Maclean’s spoke with had the same answer for what’s gone wrong in Ontario: there are too many private schools, too many graduates, and the market is flooded. And the problem seems to be spreading. Data collected by the Canadian Dental Hygienists Association (CDHA) shows that between 2006 and 2009 salaries have declined 6.5 per cent and the share of dental hygienists younger than 29 was up 17 per cent. Part of the issue is that Ontario has 28 dental hygiene programs, 24 of which are private colleges. By comparison, second-place Quebec has a total of eight private and public schools, while Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia all have one school each. And Ontario schools are pumping grads into other provinces, chiefly Alberta and British Columbia, says CDHA acting executive director Ann Wright.

The proliferation of schools in Ontario started after the provincial government passed an act in 2005 that allowed private dental hygiene programs to seek accreditation after opening, says Wright. While all dental education programs must still demonstrate to the Commission on Dental Accreditation of Canada that they meet certain minimum standards, since September 2006, in Ontario at least, the schools have been able to start training students before passing the quality test. With barriers to entry into the lucrative Ontario market so low, schools started springing up everywhere. At one point there were more than 40 schools, says Wright. (Numbers have declined as several schools failed to achieve the required accreditation and were subsequently shut down.)

Last year, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities determined that all dental hygiene programs must meet Ontario’s accreditation requirements by December 2012—seven schools have already announced they won’t make that deadline. Still, it will take a while before the market assimilates the high number of hygienists that Ontario schools have produced in recent years, and the province could still have more than 20 schools.

Some graduates are feeling shortchanged. After all, a two-year program at one of the private schools costs about $40,000, says Wright. “When I went into school, there was an abundance of jobs and I thought it would be the same when I got out, but now with over $60,000 in personal school debt and no job it looks really bleak,” lamented an anonymous commenter on the public chat room of the website

Others remain optimistic. Tiffany Halioua, a dental hygiene student at Aurora Dental College, says she was aware of the tough job market but enrolled anyway. A job in the health sector with flexible hours and no handling of blood is a dream. “I’m expecting that when I graduate I won’t have a full-time job,” but it’s worth it, she says.

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