MARIETTA — Chattahoochee Technical College has added a new degree program in its healthcare repertoire, as the school aims to address a shortage of dental assistants in the U.S. workforce.

The program, which welcomed its first class in August 2020, has six students ranging in age from 19 to 62 and aims to scale to 24 by 2025, said Michelle Peet, director of the college’s dental assisting program. Those students are currently in externships working at dental offices around the metro area.

Her next student cohort, which will begin the program next month, will have eight students, she said.

Peets said the pandemic presented challenges to the fledging program’s launch. But, she added, the community is beginning to take note and dental offices are beginning to reach out to create a school-to-work pipeline.

“There just aren’t enough people in the workforce doing this job, so demand really created it,” Peets said.

The MDJ recently visited the dental assisting program in the Marietta campus’ new health science programs building. Peets walked through the lab’s rows of 12 bays, outfitted just like a dental office, complete with patient chairs, instruments and anatomically correct model heads with mouths and teeth.

Each bay also has storage space, sinks and a computer so students could practice charting patient information, office space management, patient interaction and any other procedure they’ll need to know when they enter the workforce. Using cameras at each station, Peets said she can broadcast what she’s doing in one bay to all the students’ computer screens during a lesson.

Chattahoochee Tech was able to secure top-of-the-line technology for its dental program labs through federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, grants.

That money helped to buy what Peets said were invaluable assets like the model mouths that simulate real oral tissue and teeth, as well as a piece of equipment capable of scanning a patient’s teeth to create easily stored 3D dental records. Peets said that piece of technology alone costs $35,000.

The program also makes use of a “wet lab,” where students learn to create study models of sets of teeth, repair dentures, prepare bleaching trays and other hands-on skills that aren’t undertaken in front of patients.

After Chattahoochee Tech’s prerequisite courses for dental assisting are complete, the program can be completed in just three semesters. All told, students can move on to a job in dental assisting in around two years, Peets said, adding that the job pays around $22 per hour on average.

The idea behind programs like this one and others that Chattahoochee Tech offers, said spokesperson Anita Mashburn, is to fill high-demand jobs with well-trained workers that can graduate in less time and with far less debt than those who pursue four-year degrees.

Peets pointed out that students in the dental assisting program can complete their degree and move into a job for under $8,000.

“It’s a tremendous benefit to the students,” she said.

For students who want to move on to school to become a dental hygienist, Peets said, many programs don’t like to transfer credits, but when a student has already learned many of the skills they’ll need to know, it makes them far more competitive for admission.

“When you have 80 students apply to a dental hygiene program, and you’re taking 12, it makes you so much more competitive, and then it puts you ahead of your classmates,” she said.

The dental assisting program is only available at Chattahoochee Technical College’s Marietta campus. The technical school has seven other campuses, including one in Austell.

The technical school enrolled 8,764 students in fall 2020 and 8,234 in spring 2021.

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