Becoming an Optician: Job Description & Salary Info

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What are the pros and cons of an opticianry career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming an optician is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of an Optician Career

Opticians ensure that clients' eyeglasses and contact lenses fit properly based on prescriptions given by optometrists and ophthalmologists. To see if becoming an optician might be a good career for you, consider the following pros and cons.

Pros of an Optician Career
High-growth field (23% increase in jobs projected for 2012-2022)*
Minimal education requirements (high school diploma and on-the-job training is typical)*
Work environments range from medical practices to large department stores*
Potential to work part-time*

Cons of an Optician Career
Lower-than-average salary (about $10,000 below mean annual wage across all occupations in 2014)*
Irregular work schedule possible (night and weekend shifts are common in large retail establishments)*
May require state licensure (23 states have this requirement)*
Can involve working with difficult or indecisive customers*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Important Career Info

Job Description

Fitting and dispensing glasses or contacts may seem pretty straightforward, but opticians actually have quite a bit of variety in their daily duties. They assist clients in making decisions about frames and lens treatments based on their lifestyle while also considering the prescription from an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Opticians prepare work orders for the lab technicians who physically prepare prescription glasses or contacts. When it's time for clients to pick up their orders, opticians ensure that the items fit well and that wearers understand how to properly care for them. Performing a refitting or repairing broken glasses are also common tasks.

Opticians can find work in multiple settings, with 41% employed in optometrists' offices, according to the BLS. Retail vision stores are the next most common employer, followed by medical offices such as those run by ophthalmologists. Department stores and managed care organizations may also hire opticians. According to the Opticians Association of Ohio, about 10,000 opticians in the United States have their own businesses (www.oao.org).

The variety of employment options available in this career can be appealing, as can having the opportunity to help others. Still, as with most jobs involving customer service, it can be challenging to work with clients who are difficult or who have trouble making decisions. Additionally, if you work in a retail environment, you may have to work evenings or weekends.

Salary and Career Outlook

Opticians earned a mean annual wage of around $36,260 as of May 2014, according to BLS data. Over 70% worked in either health care practitioners' offices, earning an average of $34,210, or health and personal care stores, earning $38,660. However, the 7,240 opticians working in offices of physicians earned more, with a mean annual wage of about $40,050. Due to the large aging population and an uptick in the diagnoses of chronic diseases, there is an expected growth rate of 23% from 2012-2022.

Education and Other Requirements

Training and Licensing

Along with a high school diploma, on-the-job training under the supervision of an experienced optician is typical for entering the field. That being said, the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation does accredit 21 associate degree programs in the field, and several technical and community colleges offer certificate programs as well. Coursework in opticianry programs covers areas such as eye anatomy, dispensing practices and contact lenses. At schools offering associate degrees, a clinical experience is typically required.

As of 2012, the BLS reported that 23 states required opticians to obtain licensure. Requirements vary, but completing an apprenticeship or formal education program is usually among them. Passing an examination is also typically required.

Skills

Regardless as to whether your state requires licensure, there are certain attributes and skills that can help you do well in this line of work. These include:

  • Good people and customer service skills
  • Strong written and oral communication abilities (writing work orders, educating clients, etc.)
  • Math and technical skills (performing eye measurements)
  • Business knowledge (inventory management, making sales, etc.)
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Interest in fashion trends (to help clients make frame decisions)

What Real Employers Look For

Employers often desire some level of experience when looking for opticians. In states that require opticians to be licensed, job postings list that credential as a mandatory requirement. Job descriptions may vary somewhat based on the place of employment. For instance, a retail vision store may emphasize business and sales duties more than a medical clinic would. To gain some insight into what an employer may be looking for, take a look at these real optician job postings from April 2012.

  • A full-time optician position was available at a Los Angeles outpatient clinic run by the federal government. Candidates needed at least a year of experience in the field. The job involved helping clients choose frames, performing optometric tests/measurements, performing inventory and overseeing mailings to clients.
  • A retail store chain was looking for an optician to work in a Colorado location. In addition to dispensing duties, the job required solid sales abilities. Stocking merchandise and ensuring the optical area meets company standards was required.
  • A full-time optician was needed at an Ohio optical dispensary. The position required assisting patients, scheduling appointments and collecting payments. Overseeing the ordering and dispensing of glasses and contacts was a major part of the job as well. Candidates needed a high school diploma, state licensure and a year's experience as an optician.

How to Stand Out to Employers

Obtaining voluntary certification can help give you an edge in this field by showing potential employers your dedication to and knowledge of opticianry. This credential can be obtained through the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) and National Content Lens Examiners (NCLE). To be eligible for the ABO-NCLE certification exam, you only need to be 18 and have a high school diploma or GED. However, the organizations advise that those who've completed a formal education program or have 2-3 years of experience are more likely to pass the exam (www.abo-ncle.org).

Being certified may help you earn a higher income and land promotions. An ABO-NCLE survey revealed that 75% of optician employers preferred hiring certified candidates and paid them higher beginning salaries. Certified opticians with 10 years of experience also earn about $6,000 more than uncertified opticians with the same amount of experience. Almost half - 40% - of employers were more likely to promote certified opticians as well.

Other Careers to Consider

Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician

If the idea of making eyeglasses sounds more appealing than selling them, consider becoming an ophthalmic lab technician. Using their hands or special equipment, these workers create, shape and assemble eyeglasses and contact lenses based on prescription orders. Most techs work in healthcare stores or medical manufacturing labs, followed closely behind by optometric and medical offices. This occupation can be appealing if you're looking to go straight into a field that requires no formal education or licensure. Ophthalmic lab techs do earn somewhat less than opticians, with a 2011 mean annual wage of about $30,000. Employment growth for 2010-2020 was expected to be 13%, which was about the average for all occupations.

Optometric or Ophthalmic Assistant

Becoming an optometric or ophthalmic assistant is a related career option that offers solid employment growth and that could be of particular interest if you'd like to provide patient care. Optometric assistants can have clerical duties, but they also perform certain procedures, such as measuring eye pressure. They educate patients on how to use and care for contacts as well. Ophthalmic assistants work under the supervision of medical doctors called ophthalmologists. They may assist with eye surgeries in addition to having tasks similar to an optometric assistant. Though not required, employers tend to hire assistants with some level of formal education, which is often completed at a community or technical college.

The BLS classifies these workers under the category of medical assistants, which is a field with projected 31% job growth for 2010-2020. The 2011 mean annual wage for medical assistants was about $30,000 for those working with physicians. Those employed by other healthcare practitioners - including optometrists - made around $27,000.

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