Dental Assistant

Kaiāwhina Mahi Niho

Alternative titles for this job

Dental assistants help dentists with patient care and running dental practices.

Pay

New dental assistants usually earn

$18-$19 per hour

Experienced dental assistants usually earn

$19-$26 per hour

Job opportunities

Chances of getting a job as a dental assistant are good due to high turnover.

Pay

Pay for dental assistants varies depending on experience.

  • New dental assistants usually earn between minimum wage and $19 an hour.
  • Dental assistants with two to three years' experience can earn up to $22.
  • Senior dental assistants with five years' experience or more can earn up to $26.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our pay information)

What you will do

Dental assistants may do some or all of the following:

  • greet and prepare patients for treatment
  • mix materials for fillings
  • clean and prepare instruments
  • pass instruments and materials to the dentist as required
  • develop x-rays
  • make moulds of patients' teeth
  • complete infection prevention and control processes and procedures
  • follow up with patients where required
  • perform reception and clerical duties such as ordering dental and office supplies.

Skills and knowledge

Dental assistants need to have knowledge of:

  • basic dentistry and hygiene
  • dental practices, so they can anticipate the needs of the dentist
  • dental materials and vocabulary
  • how to use and care for dental equipment, including sterilisation procedures
  • dental surgery procedures, including the use of sedatives and anaesthetics.

Working conditions

Dental assistants:

  • work regular business hours and may be required to work late nights and weekends
  • work in clean, well-lit surroundings in dental surgeries, hospitals, private dental practices and community health centres.

What's the job really like?

Stacey Reuben

Stacey Reuben

Dental Assistant

"Handing instruments to the dentist is the impression most people have of dental assistants," says Stacey Reuben.

"But it's actually very full-on. I work closely with the dentist so I have to be familiar with the way they work."

A high level of responsibility involved

There is a lot of responsibility in the work, says Stacey. "From noting down teeth that need fillings, extractions or root canals, to booking appointments and setting up and sterilising instruments." And you also have to be ready for the unexpected.

"One minute I could be doing a filling and the next minute the dentist discovers it's too deep and I end up being involved in a root canal."

Taking up an opportunity

After agreeing to help out temporarily at the community centre dental clinic, Stacey ended up staying a lot longer.

"It was for two weeks, but that snowballed into a year and a half. There is always something to learn and that’s what’s kept me interested in the work. Now I have my mind set on being a dental hygienist."

A job that brings its own rewards

Stacey says she really likes seeing the difference dental work makes, especially for people with rotten, broken or dirty teeth. “Knowing that patients feel as well as look better after treatment is very satisfying.

"It’'s also satisfying knowing that without my help the dentist couldn't do their job."

Check out what it's like to be a dental assistant in the New Zealand Army - 0.50 mins. (Video courtesy of the New Zealand Army)

I am a dental assistant in the New Zealand Army.

We have to make sure everything is ready to go for the dentist. And then if they’re doing fillings we’ll mix up composites or amalgams we use for filling materials, clean up, make sure the patient is alright, then pack down and sterilise and set up for the next patient.

The cool thing about being a DA [dental assistant] is we get to go onto further study maybe as a hygienist, or dental technician or dental manager.

We’re a tri-service call so we look after Air Force, Navy and Army, so it’s quite good – we get to go all over the country.

Entry requirements

Becoming a dental assistant

There are no specific entry requirements to become a dental assistant, as you gain skills on the job.

However, many employers prefer you to have completed the New Zealand Dental Association Certificate in Dental Assisting, or may take you on as a trainee while you complete the certificate.

The Vulnerable Children Act 2014 means that if you have certain serious convictions, you can’t be employed in a role where you are responsible for, or work alone with, children. 

Secondary education

There are no specific secondary education requirements to become a dental assistant. However, health, biology, chemistry, physics and English to at least NCEA Level 2 are useful.

Additional requirements for specialist roles:

Becoming an orthodontic auxiliary

Dental assistants may progress to become orthodontic auxiliaries, and assist orthodontists with patient care. To become an orthodontic auxiliary you need to complete approved training and meet other requirements set out by the Dental Council of New Zealand. An Annual Practising Certificate and registration with the Dental Council of New Zealand is also required.

Personal requirements

Dental assistants need to be:

  • friendly, polite and caring
  • good at listening to others
  • good with people and able to communicate effectively
  • quick and efficient
  • able to work well under pressure
  • able to remain calm in emergencies
  • organised and able to follow instructions
  • able to perform basic computer tasks.

Useful experience

Useful experience for dental assistants includes:

  • hospital work
  • reception work
  • any other work involving contact with people.

Physical requirements

Dental assistants need to be reasonably fit and healthy, with good posture.

Registration

Orthodontic auxiliaries must be registered with the Dental Council of New Zealand.

Find out more about training

Dental Council of New Zealand
(04) 499 4820 - inquiries@dentalcouncil.org.nz - www.dentalcouncil.org.nz
New Zealand Dental Association
(09) 579 8001 - www.nzda.org.nz
New Zealand Dental and Oral Health Therapists Association
(04)473 9547 - contact@nzoral.org.nz - www.nzoral.org.nz
Check out related courses

What are the chances of getting a job?

High proportion of dental assistant jobs part time, but vacancies common

A third of dental assistants only work part time, which means it can be hard to find full-time work, especially if you are new to the role.

However, positions come up frequently because dental assistants often leave the role after a short period to move into other dentistry training or work in other industries.

To increase your chances of securing a job, approach employers directly, and target bigger dental practices as the likelihood of finding someone to train you is higher. 

Types of employers varied

Dental assistants work for:

  • dentists
  • dental therapists
  • dental hygienists
  • school and community dental services
  • hospital dental units
  • the Defence Force.

Orthodontic auxiliaries work for an orthodontist, or for a dentist with a particular interest in orthodontics.

Sources

  • Careers Directorate – Tertiary Education Commission research, July 2017.

(This information is a guide only. Find out more about the sources of our job opportunities information)

Progression and specialisations

Dental assistants can complete further training and become orthodontic auxiliaries. Some dental assistants go on to become receptionists at dental practices, or practice managers. A small number get jobs selling products for dental companies.

Orthodontic Auxiliary
Orthodontic auxiliaries assist orthodontists and help diagnose and correct bad bite, crooked teeth and poor jaw growth in children and young people using braces and other techniques.
A dental assistant stretches the mouth of a patient using a tool so that a dentist can get inside the patient's mouth.

Dental assistants help support dentists to care for people's teeth.

Last updated 30 October 2019