Two masked people practice dentistry on a mannequin
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These paid Pitt apprentices will fill gaps in the dental industry

  • Health and Wellness
  • Community Impact
  • Students
  • School of Dental Medicine

Though her workday doesn’t begin until 8 a.m., Laychell Parron rises early. She’s up by 5:30 because she likes to shower, make her breakfast and lunch, then jump on a bus in Hazelwood and ride some 40 minutes across town to Oakland.

She arrives about 7:30 a.m. at Pitt’s School of Dental Medicine at Salk Hall, where she is in clinical rotation as a dental assistant apprentice.

Parron is seven months into Pitt’s Dental Assisting Apprenticeship Program. The pioneering initiative, one of the first in the state and one of only a few across the nation, is “a completely new way of thinking about how to train dental assistants,” said Jen Preuss, a dental professional who helps with the program and who has worked for more than 20 years with dental education, in clinical and private dentistry, and in project management with UPMC Health Plan.

Society, she said, is accustomed to more traditional labor and construction apprenticeships, which train electricians, plumbers, bricklayers and others. But the School of Dental Medicine thought the apprentice model could work in health care education as well, particularly in a field such as dental assisting. Also unique to this 14-month program: the apprentices get paid while they learn, and the program seeks to address a shortage of health care professionals and diversify the dentistry workforce.

Typically, said Preuss, a student would enroll in a similar education plus training program and pay tuition, but this is new and Pitt is working closely with the state, which awarded the School of Dental Medicine funding through a PAsmart grant from the Department of Labor and Industry for the training. Once the apprentices are done, they'll get a certificate from the state of Pennsylvania.

Jim Earle, executive dean for strategic development and operations at the School of Dental Medicine, said the program also partnered with Pittsburgh Public Schools to recruit and create a pipeline of high school students, to ready them for the workforce with skills in high demand.

It was less than a year ago when Parron first heard about the program. She was a senior at Pittsburgh’s Taylor Allderdice High School and wondering about her next steps after graduation. On the advice of a counselor, she applied and was accepted as an apprentice.

For her, it’s a pathway into a career as a caring health professional, something she’s dreamed of pursuing since she was 10 and saw a documentary on caring for people with terminal illnesses.

Growing up, Parron moved frequently as her mother sought more affordable communities in which to raise a family. Parron knew it would be a reach for her family to aid with education beyond high school, so, she said, her “Plan A was to go to Job Corps and train to be a nursing assistant and then attend community college.” Job Corps provides participants with a living allowance while they train.

However, says Parron, Plan B, “is going pretty well.” She feels excited and on track to a better life, and the financial support is a bonus that makes it all possible for her.

At this point in the program, when she’s at the school, she spends her mornings with dental students, assisting as they treat patients. She’s getting hands-on experience in care, protocol and sanitizing. She dedicates her afternoons to self-study and preparation. The clinical training still to come involves restorative dentistry, implants and oral surgery, extraction and orthodontics.

Parron is part of a diverse, nontraditional six-person premier cohort. She was accepted right out of high school and is joined by a former dentistry worker from Vietnam, a former retail associate and two others with pharmacy backgrounds, including an apprentice from Jordan.

They all come from different positions in life and are working closely with trained mentors — not only Preuss but also apprentice training specialist Paulette Rollant, a dental assistant and licensed dental hygienist who has worked with the National Guard, the Army, and is a 2022 Pitt graduate with a degree in dental hygiene.

The mentors have helped the cohort adjust to the amount of instruction and lectures that were necessary for the first half of the program and negotiate other learning curves with juggling schedules and expectations.

“They have some barriers that we help them to overcome,” said Preuss, “and because we work so closely with them, we can see some of the things that they’re overcoming. We’re there to help them finish this program and be successful.”

And they’re needed. They are entering the field at a critical moment when there’s a shortage of dental assistants. The shortage peaked during the height of COVID-19 when many professionals transitioned out of the dental industry and those trained as assistants decided to pursue other options. So, the Pitt program is designed to address the need.

Next steps? The cohort is on track to finish clinical rotations, train in radiographs and prepare for certifications, which began in July, and take the national board exams.

Parron is finding she’s enjoying the journey to becoming a dental assistant. “I’m still helping people out, still able to bond with patients,” she said.

And she is grateful of the apprenticeship model, as well. “I appreciate the goals of helping because the dental assisting world is very short on staff, but I also think that helping out students like me, or just other people in general, who don't have the opportunity to pay for an education and can prepare them for a higher paying career is a good thing. This is really setting me up for a better life.”


— Ervin Dyer, photography by University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine. Pictured: Parron and fellow apprentice Vanessa Lacruz assist in the Dental School of Medicine's simulation lab.