How to become a dental lab assistant: Tom's story

Meet Tom, 18, an apprentice dental laboratory assistant. Part of our Bitesize world of work series.

"When I finished school, I decided I didn’t want to go to college, so I thought I should get an apprenticeship."

What is your job?

It’s a really hands-on job involving making dental appliances like retainers and dentures, and also the models on which those things are made. Most days, I’m casting and trimming plaster models and keeping up the general cleanliness of the lab.

What skills do you use in your work?

I use lots of hands-on skills. I also use time management skills when we have got various jobs overlapping each other. I also use people skills – you are dealing with patients, other clinicians, whoever calls on the phone and nurses asking for jobs to be done.

What subjects did you study?

At school I did GCSEs in Maths, English, Triple Science, ICT, History, French and Food Technology. I had to think about what my favourite way of working was. I found out that I was good academically, but I preferred hands-on work, like in my Food Technology course. I decided to pick that, focus on it and make sure that I did well in it. That has led me to my job here. At the time, I thought Food Technology would only lend itself to a cooking career. I realise now that I am using a lot of the skills I learned from making cakes such as mixing materials together!

How did you get into your job?

When I finished school, I decided I didn’t want to go to college, so I thought I should get an apprenticeship. I saw on the NHS jobs website that this hospital was hosting a Business Admin Apprenticeship. I applied for it but, as I lacked experience, I was put on a Prospect Programme (a traineeship scheme). From that, I built up my skills which then led to a job here and an apprenticeship in Healthcare Support Services.

Was this a job you always knew you wanted to do?

I always liked doing things with my hands. I came into the department to start a career in Business Administration and was shown the lab. I found out more about it and after seeing the work that the technicians did I thought this was the job for me.

Tom preparing a mixture in the dental laboratory.

Top tips

  • It’s best to approach both NHS and private dental labs, because they might let you look around and perhaps inform you of any colleges or universities that do specified courses. I wouldn’t have found this job if I hadn’t come here first

  • Choose your own path. I always got pressure to go to college and university and focus on academic achievements. I decided to see how well I could do if I didn’t follow that. I ended up in a job I really enjoy

  • I think it’s all up to what you really want to do, not what others tell you to do.

What to expect if you want to become a dental lab assistant

An apprentice dental lab assistant can do an apprenticeship to become a fully-qualified dental lab assistant working under the supervision of a dental lab technician. You will need a minimum of four GCSEs (or equivalent) at grade C or above, including English and Maths. You could then go on to do a Higher Apprenticeship to become a dental lab technician.

  • Dental lab technician salary: £24,214 to £43,772 per year
  • Dental lab technician working hours: 39 to 41 hours per week

What qualifications do you need to be a dental lab assistant?

  • Typical entry requirements: You can get into this role through a higher apprenticeship as a dental technician. You'll usually need four or five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and college qualifications like A-levels for a higher or a degree apprenticeship. You can work as a trainee dental technician with a practice and study part-time. This could take up to five years, depending on which qualification you do. You can do a Level 3 Extended Diploma in Dental Technology at college, approved by the General Dental Council. You'll usually need five GCSEs (or equivalent) at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), including English, Maths and Science. You could do a foundation degree or degree in Dental Technology, approved by the General Dental Council. You're likely to need a degree qualification to do advanced dental technology work. You'll need at least one A-level (or equivalent) for a foundation degree or two to three A-levels (or equivalent) for a degree.

This information is a guide (sources: LMI, National Careers Service, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education)

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