California Occupational Guides

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Detailed Guide for

Dental Assistants in San Diego County

May also be called: Registered Dental Assistants (RDA); Certified Registered Dental Assistants; Surgical Dental Assistants; and Orthodontic Assistants.

What Would I Do?

Dental Assistants perform a variety of patient care, office, and laboratory duties. They work chairside as dentists examine and treat patients. Duties can vary depending upon the size of the practice, with larger offices resulting in greater job specialization.

They make patients as comfortable as possible in the dental chair, prepare them for treatment, and obtain their dental records. Assistants hand instruments and materials to dentists and keep patients’ mouths dry and clear by using suction or other devices. Assistants also sterilize and disinfect instruments and equipment, prepare trays of instruments for dental procedures, and instruct patients on postoperative and general oral health care.

Some Dental Assistants prepare materials for impressions and restorations, take dental x-rays, and process the film as directed by a dentist. They may also remove sutures, apply topical anesthetics to gums or cavity-preventive agents to teeth, remove excess cement used in the filling process, and place rubber dams on the teeth to isolate them for individual treatment.

Those with laboratory duties make casts of the teeth and mouth from impressions, clean and polish removable appliances, and make temporary crowns.

Dental Assistants may also assist with office duties such as scheduling and confirming appointments, receiving patients, keeping treatment records, sending bills, receiving payments, and ordering dental supplies and materials.

(The job of Dental Assistant should not be confused with Dental Hygienists, who are licensed to perform different clinical tasks.)

Important Tasks and Related Skills

Each task below is matched to a sample skill required to carry out the task.

View the skill definitions
TaskSkill Used in this Task
Prepare patient, sterilize and disinfect instruments, set up instrument trays, prepare materials, and assist dentist during dental procedures.Medicine and Dentistry
Expose dental diagnostic x-rays.Equipment Selection
Record treatment information in patient records.English Language
Take and record medical and dental histories and vital signs of patients.Customer and Personal Service
Provide postoperative instructions prescribed by dentist.Active Listening
Assist dentist in management of medical and dental emergencies.Time Management
Pour, trim, and polish study casts.Arm-Hand Steadiness
Instruct patients in oral hygiene and plaque control programs.Service Orientation
Make preliminary impressions for study casts and occlusal registrations for mounting study casts.Finger Dexterity
Clean and polish removable appliances.Coordination
Source: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Information Network (O*NET)

Working Conditions

Dental Assistants work in pleasant, well-lighted dental offices and clinics. Their work area usually is near the dental chair so they can arrange instruments, materials, and medication and hand them to the dentist when needed. Dental Assistants must wear gloves, masks, eyewear, and protective clothing to protect themselves and their patients from infectious diseases. Assistants also follow safety procedures to minimize the risks associated with the use of x-ray machines.

About half of Dental Assistants have a 35- to 40-hour workweek, which may include work on Saturdays or evenings. Some Dental Assistants work part time; however, most work a 32- to 40-hour workweek.

The occupation is not unionized in most practices.

Will This Job Fit Me?

Dental assisting should appeal to job seekers who enjoy working with people, and who crave an environment where each day is different. This occupation is one that will attract people with social and realistic interests. Social occupations frequently involve working with, communicating with, and teaching people. These occupations often involve helping or providing service to others.

What Wages and Benefits Can I Expect?

Wages

The median wage in 2015 for Dental Assistants in California was $37,430 annually, or $17.99 hourly. The median wage for Dental Assistants in San Diego County was $39,454 annually, or $18.97 hourly. The median is the point at which half of the workers earn more and half earn less.

Change to Hourly Wages
Annual Wages for 2015Low
(25th percentile)
Median
(50th percentile)
High
(75th percentile)
California$30,482$37,430$47,066
San Diego County$33,568$39,454$46,443
Source: EDD/LMID Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2015 Wages do not reflect self-employment.
View Wages for All Areas

Benefits

Benefits vary substantially by practice setting and may be contingent upon full-time employment.

Most dental practices offer full-time Dental Assistants vacation and sick leave. Other benefits may include medical, dental, vision, life insurance, and/or retirement plans. Generally, part-time Assistants receive fewer benefits. However, some part-time employees receive medical and dental insurance and vacation.

What Do Local Employers Say About Benefits?  Of the 38 employers in San Diego County, almost all provide vacation, and most provide medical insurance benefits to Dental Assistants who work full-time.

Percent of Employers Who Provide
Specific Benefits by Time Base
Benefit TypeFull-TimePart-Time
Vacation82%13%
Medical Insurance74%3%
Sick Leave55%8%
Dental Insurance53%16%
Retirement Plan42%11%
Vision Insurance13%0%
Paid Time Off Bank13%0%
Disability Insurance11%0%
Life Insurance5%0%
No benefits0%26%
Source: EDD/LMID Local Occupational Information Survey.

Of the 28 employers surveyed who responded in San Diego County, who provides medical benefits, many reported that they pay half or more of the cost of medical insurance for full-time, and none reported that they pay half or more of the cost of medical insurance for part-time Dental Assistants.

Percent of Employers Who Paid Medical
Insurance by Portion Paid by Time Base
Portion Paid by Employer:Full-TimePart-Time
All11%0%
Half or more32%0%
Less than Half54%0%
None4%100%
Source: EDD/LMID Local Occupational Information Survey.

What is the Job Outlook?

In general, the outlook for this occupation should be good. The demand for Dental Assistants will be spurred by the need to spare the dentist the more routine tasks in favor of more complex, and financially rewarding, procedures. The majority of job openings will occur due to the need to replace workers who retire, transfer to other occupations, or leave the labor force. Many opportunities are for entry-level positions offering on-the-job training.

Population growth and greater retention of natural teeth by middle-aged and older people should fuel demand for dental services. Older dentists, who may have been less likely to employ Assistants, are leaving the occupation and will be replaced by recent graduates, who are more likely to use one or even two Assistants. In addition, as dentists’ workloads increase, they are expected to hire more Assistants to perform routine tasks, so they may devote their own time to more complex procedures.

Projections of Employment

In California, the number of Dental Assistants is expected to grow at an average rate compared with the total for all occupations. Jobs for Dental Assistants are expected to increase by 15.5 percent, or 7,000 jobs between 2012 and 2022.

In San Diego County, the number of Dental Assistants is expected to grow at an average rate compared with the total for all occupations. Jobs for Dental Assistants are expected to increase by 17.5 percent, or 620 jobs between 2012 and 2022.

Estimated Employment and Projected Growth
Dental Assistants
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-Projected Year)
Estimated
Employment
Projected
Employment
Numeric
Change
Percent
Change
Additional Openings
Due to Net
Replacements
California
(2012-2022)
45,20052,2007,00015.59,400
San Diego County
(2012-2022)
3,5404,16062017.5730
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Projected Growth for All Areas

Annual Job Openings

In California, an average of 700 new job openings per year is expected for Dental Assistants, plus an additional 940 job openings due to net replacement needs, resulting in a total of 1,640 job openings.

In San Diego County, an average of 62 new job openings per year is expected for Dental Assistants, plus an additional 73 job openings due to net replacement needs, resulting in a total of 135 job openings.

Estimated Average Annual Job Openings
Dental Assistants
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-
Projected Year)
Jobs From GrowthJobs Due to
Net Replacements
Total Annual
Job Openings
California
(2012-2022)
7009401,640
San Diego County
(2012-2022)
6273135
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Data for All Areas

How Do I Qualify?

Education, Training, and Other Requirements

Many Assistants learn on the job, though some complete a course of study at a technical or community college. Some Assistants learn the trade in the armed forces.

Experience

Experience is preferred but not required. Education can take the place of experience in many dentists’ offices. Most Assistants learn their skills on the job, although an increasing number are trained in dental assisting programs; most programs take one year or less to complete. Enrollment in an ROP course, combining instruction with practical experience, is an excellent way to gain entry to the occupation.

Early Career Planning

High school students interested in becoming Dental Assistants should take courses in biology, chemistry, health, and office practices.

Continuing Education

Dental Assistants in California have no continuing education requirements. However, Registered Dental Assistants and Registered Dental Assistants in Extended Functions must renew their California State license every two years and complete 25 hours of continuing education. Current CPR training approved by the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association is also required.

Each licensee must complete 25 units of approved coursework during each two-year renewal cycle. Twenty units must be in athe actual delivery of dental services, including two units each in infection control and the California Dental Practice Act. Other courses must be in basic life support, preventive services, diagnosis, nutritionn counseling, treatment planning, corrective and restorative treatment, the dentists role in health emergencies and disasters, legal requirements, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA), instrument sterilization, and environmental and general safety. Other classes include record keeping, the practice of dentistry including scheduling, practice management, communication, legal matters, and health care delivery.

Apprenticeship and Work Study (ROP) Programs

Regional Occupational Programs (ROP) exist throughout the State. The program generally consists of classroom instruction combined with pre-clinic, hands-on experience in a dentist’s office. Closely supervised clinical experience dealing with patients comprises the second half of the course. The total length of the program is usually 9-12 months. ROPs offer an excellent entry point for the Dental Assistant. To find an ROP program near you, go to the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs Website at www.carocp.org/carocps.html.

Licensing and Certification

Contact the agency that issues the license for additional information. Click on the license title below for details.

Dental Assistants who complete an American Dental Association-accredited dental assisting education program can take an exam to become certified. The Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) offers certification in dental assisting. Completion of the course work can result in the Assistant being designated as a Certified Dental Assistant (CDA). DANB also offers training for Assistants performing advanced duties, including taking x-rays of patients’ teeth. For more information, go to the U.S. Department of Labor's Career InfoNet Web site and scroll down to "Career Tools." Click on "Certification Finder" and follow the instructions to locate certification programs.

Where Can I Find Training?

There are two ways to search for training information:

Contact the schools you are interested in to learn about the classes available, tuition and fees, and any prerequisite course work.

Where Would I Work?

The largest industries employing Dental Assistants are as follows:

Industry TitlePercent of Total Employment for Occupation in California
Offices of Dentists 92.4%
Offices of Physicians 2.4%
Outpatient Care Centers 1.2%
State Government 1.1%
Source: EDD/LMID Staffing Patterns

What Employers Say...

The Employment Development Department surveyed 38 employers in San Diego County which employ 166 Dental Assistants. Here's what they had to say:

About Full-Time/Part-Time: Almost All of these firms employ full-time and many employ part-time Dental Assistants.

About Work Experience:  Of the 38 employers surveyed in San Diego County, almost all require new hires to have prior work experience as Dental Assistants. In the table below, percentages may not add to 100% since employers may select more than one time period.

How Much Work Experience
Do Employers Require?
More than 5 years 6%
25 to 60 months 18%
13 to 24 months 18%
1 to 12 months 58%
Source: EDD/LMID Local Occupational Information Survey.

About Recruitment:  Of the 38 employers surveyed in San Diego County, many indicate it is moderately difficult to find applicants with experience who meet their minimum hiring requirements, while many indicate it is easy to find applicants without previous experience who meet their minimum hiring requirements to fill vacancies for Dental Assistants.

About Hiring:  Of the 38 employers surveyed in San Diego County, almost all expect the number of Dental Assistants they employ to remain stable during the coming year.

Hiring Expectations
Expect Employment to Increase 16%
Expect Employment to Remain Stable 82%
Expect Employment to Decline 3%
Source: EDD/LMID Local Occupational Information Survey.

About Vacancies:  Of the 38 employers surveyed in San Diego County, 58 percent hired Dental Assistants during the past year. Of the hiring firms, 64 percent filled existing vacancies, 45 percent filled newly created positions, and 9 percent filled temporary assignments.

Finding a Job

Direct application to private dental offices is an excellent way of locating openings. Sometimes one office will know of opportunities in another dental office. Private colleges and vocational schools may offer placement assistance, as do many community colleges. Many employers recruit job applicants through newspaper advertisements.  Online job opening systems include JobCentral at www.jobcentral.com and CalJOBSSM at www.caljobs.ca.gov.

To find your nearest One-Stop Career Center, go to Service Locator. View the helpful job search tips for more resources. (requires Adobe Reader).

Yellow Page Headings

You can focus your local job search by checking employers listed online or in your local telephone directory. Below are some suggested headings where you might find employers of Dental Assistants.

  • Dental Clinics
  • Dentists
  • Hospitals
  • Medical & Dental Assistants, Technicians Schools
  • Public Health Clinics
  • State Prisons

Find Possible Employers

To locate a list of employers in your area, go to "Find Employers" on the Labor Market Information Web site:

  • Select one of the top industries that employ the occupation. This will give you a list of employers in that industry in your area.
  • Click on "View Filter Selections" to limit your list to specific cities or employer size.
  • Click on an employer for the street address, telephone number, size of business, Web site, etc.
  • Contact the employer for possible employment.

Where Could This Job Lead?

Opportunities for advancement are limited without additional education. In larger offices, Dental Assistants with front office experience may advance to become office managers.

In addition, Dental Assistants may advance to Dental Hygienist after graduating from a State Board-approved dental hygiene program and obtaining the required California State license.

Related Occupations

Below is a list of occupations related to Dental Assistants with links to more information.

OccupationOccupational
Guide
Industry
Report
Occupational
Profile
Dental HygienistsGuide
Nonfarm Animal CaretakersGuide
OrthodontistsProfile
ProsthodontistsProfile
Radiologic Technologists and Technicians*Guide
Surgical TechnologistsGuide

Other Sources

These links are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement by EDD.

For the Career Professional

The following codes are provided to assist counselors, job placement workers, or other career professionals.

SystemCode
SOC - Standard Occupational Classification31-9091
O*NET - Occupational Information Network
   Dental Assistants31-9091.00
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)CRS
CIP - Classification of Instructional Programs
   Dental Assisting/Assistant 510601
TOP - Taxonomy of Programs (California Community Colleges)
   Dental Assistant124010