Sara Cooper knows it sounds silly, but she has always liked teeth.
Stacie Shirley remembers a field trip to a dentist's office and loving its sounds and smells.
Both are students at Columbus Technical College where they are in the dental hygiene program.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, both will likely find work after getting their degrees and meeting licensing qualifications. The employment of dental hygienists is expected to increase by 38 percent from 2010 to 2020. The job often offers flexible hours and pays well.
Rebecca Foster, the program director of the dental hygiene program in the School of Health Sciences, said the average salary nationally is about $30 per hour, though in Georgia it can be a little lower than that.
Foster said reasons for the high demand include more people now having dental insurance and more people becoming educated about dental health and how it relates to their overall health.
The range of services performed by dental hygienists varies from state to state and may include cleaning and polishing teeth; examining the head, neck and oral areas for signs of disease; educating patients about oral hygiene; exposing and processing radiographs; and applying fluoride and sealants. They may also assist a dentist during surgery.
Foster said 15 students are taken into the program each fall. Their admittance is based solely on grades, the average grade point average being a 3.3. "We used to do interviews but not anymore," Foster said.
Students must take courses in subjects such as English, chemistry, microbiology and anatomy.
She has had as many as 80 applicants for the 15 slots. Usually, it is about 40-45.
Foster said she has had students as old as 50 in the program. Sometimes, the "more mature" students are the best, she said.
Shirley is 39. She has had several jobs, including work as a dental assistant and handling registration in a hospital emergency room. The mother of two drives 90 minutes from Meansville, Ga., in Pike County each day to attend class.
"It's an important job," Shirley said. "It is a lot more than just sitting down and cleaning teeth. It is about oral health, finding problems and preventing them. It is about educating people."
Cooper, 20, echoed those thoughts. The Phenix City resident had thought about nursing but said it didn't fit right. She likes the relationship that dental hygienists form with their patients.
Both Cooper and Shirley are at the stage where they are working with people in the school's dental clinic on River Road. More than 60 clinical hours are required. In the beginning, training is done on mannequins.
"This is a lot different than being in a fake mouth," Cooper said, as she worked on a patient.
The work is sometimes frustrating for her. "I want to be perfect," she said.
People can come and get a cleaning and X-rays at the clinic for somewhere between $15 and $30, much lower than at a dentist's office. There is a catch.
"We are asking people for their time. They need to be able to stay for about four hours," Foster said. "Students prepare a treatment plan. It is about the students learning."
Each student is assisted in the clinic by an instructor. A dentist is on duty to assist and observe.
Mike Helms is one of them. He said the job of dental hygienist is more difficult than ever. It has become a highly technical field. Helms said a good hygienist must have dexterity. There is something else for which he looks.
"They must have compassion for the patient," Helms said. "They should have a good personality and take a professional approach to the job. "
Foster said the program is grueling with lectures and clinical work. Some students break down and leave.
The students in the program get to work with much of the latest high-tech equipment. There are labs and a sterilization room.
"Everything is on computer," Foster said. "No film."
Training includes learning how to work with patients who have special needs.
"It takes a lot to be a dental hygienist these days," Foster said. "Our students are well prepared."