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Bridging graduates with established oral health providers to meet West Virginia’s needs

A WVU School of Dentistry perspective

Who doesn’t want a job lined up before they graduate, especially in the recent economic environment? Interest rates are high. Inflation is up. Unemployment is forecasted to increase in 2024. Forward thinking and feasible solutions to the rescue.

Vendors at the WVU School of Dentistry Career Fair

A fitting (career) affair

West Virginia University School of Dentistry Office of Student Affairs, Community Health and Outreach sponsors an event that could lead qualified dental and dental hygiene graduates down a path to securing a professional position prior to the pomp and circumstance.

In conjunction with the American Student Dental Association and WVU Career Services, the dental school hosted its second annual career fair on October 27. The concept and set-up are what you would expect of a typical college career fair. Folding tables. Conference room chairs. Bright, bold logos. Swag. Space that is a little tight. A positive atmosphere that is a little loud.

WVU School of Dentistry Career Fair 2023However, in Appalachia, particularly West Virginia, the stakes are a little higher at this career fair. There are patients in need, new providers hitting the job market and practices looking for the right fits for their offices.

Could this yearly interaction be the solution to oral healthcare limitations in underserved or rural communities?

West Virginia’s tooth truth

The statistics, if not alarming, are at the very least concerning.

The number of people with tooth trouble goes up while a well-established West Virginia dental workforce, largely made up of past graduates of the state’s only dental school, tries to keep up.

In “Burden of Oral Disease in West Virginia” from the West Virginia Department of Oral Health and Human Resources Oral Health Program, the document indicates that by third grade nearly half (48%) of the kids in the state have already experienced tooth decay. For adults, the report indicates fewer residents seem to be facing edentulism, but West Virginia is still one of the states with the highest number of adult tooth loss in the country.

A student and provider pose at the dental school career fair.

Experts seeking experts

At the Health Sciences Campus in Morgantown, site of the sold-out dental school career fair, potential employers took advantage of the limited 40 spots available for them to have an in-person exchange with soon-to-be graduates. It is prime time in the Mountain State for adding uniquely qualified, highly trained and technologically advanced providers.

The median age of dentists, both general and specialty providers, in West Virginia is about five years older than the U.S. median of 37.8. While the early 40’s may not be time to retire, for some, it might be a time to start thinking or dreaming about retirement. As existing experts grow a little more mature, demands grow a little more, too.

The West Virginia oral healthcare workforce is tightknit, impassioned and busy. The “Burden of Oral Disease” report also estimated the state could use 20% more oral healthcare providers per capita for West Virginians to have similar accessibility to dental care as residents of other states.

Employees of a private practice pose at the WVU School of Dentistry career fair.

Meeting the needs

There are dental offices around the state adding associates at a steady pace. Although, the market might appear a little lopsided if you’re the one hiring. Options for dental school graduates are not limited – in the state or nationwide. Candidates for jobs in rural areas are limited.

On the other hand, with the average dental student debt well into six figures, the certainty of an upcoming paycheck can be a relief.

So, the connection begins, face-to-face, with as little as four feet separating a future boss from a possible associate. The networking is essential.

Growing a practice is hard. Retiring from a practice is hard. Finding the right dentist or hygienist to build on the current owner’s success is important. It involves passion, pride and the ultimate desire to make a difference.

The process of adding a team member is as delicate as dental work. It needs to be just right, for the providers and their patients.

School of Dentistry Class of 2023 on stage at commencement.

Success in action

In 2023, the year the dental school revived the career fair that had been on a long hiatus, administration noticed a huge shift in where the majority of the school’s doctor of dental school graduates were going. The number of WVU graduates deciding to start their career in West Virginia more than doubled from 19% to 41% with the Class of 2023, compared to the previous year’s graduates.

Click to see an album of contributed photos from the 2023 career fair. 

Planning for the third annual dental school career fair is underway.