Career Guide for Dispensing Opticians

Dispensing opticians help people take a prescription for eyeware and find the right glasses or contact lenses. A dispensing optician works to ensure the right fit and style for the customer.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a dispensing optician.

Dispensing Optician Summary

  • Employers increasingly prefer dispensing opticians to complete certification or graduate from an accredited 2-year associate’s degree program in opticianry; some large employers may provide an apprenticeship.
  • A license to practice is required by 22 States.
  • Employment growth is projected to be average and reflect the steady demand for corrective lenses and fashionable eyeglass frames.
  • Job opportunities are likely to be very good.

Working as a Dispensing Optician

Helping people see better and look good at the same time is the job of a dispensing optician. Dispensing opticians help select and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses for people with eye problems, following prescriptions written by ophthalmologists or optometrists. Dispensing opticians recommend eyeglass frames, lenses, and lens coatings after considering the prescription and the customer’s occupation, habits, and facial features. When fitting new eyeglasses, opticians use sophisticated diagnostic instruments to measure various characteristics of a client’s eyes, including the thickness, width, curvature, and surface topography of the cornea. They also obtain a customer’s prescription history to re-make eyeglasses or contact lenses, or they may verify a prescription with the examining optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Dispensing opticians prepare work orders that give ophthalmic laboratory technicians the information they need to grind and insert lenses into a frame. The work order includes prescriptions for lenses and information on their size, material, color, and style. Some dispensing opticians grind and insert lenses themselves. They may also apply tint to lenses. After the glasses are made, dispensing opticians verify that the lenses meet the specifications, and then they may reshape or bend the frames with pliers for a custom fit.

Many opticians also spend time fixing and refitting broken frames, as well as instructing clients about wearing or caring for eyeglasses. Additionally, administrative duties have become a major part of their work, including keeping records on customers’ prescriptions, work orders, and payments, and tracking inventory and sales.

Some dispensing opticians, after additional education and training, specialize in fitting contacts, artificial eyes, or cosmetic shells to cover blemished eyes. To fit contact lenses, dispensing opticians measure the shape and size of the eye, select the type of contact lens material, and prepare work orders specifying the prescription and lens size. Dispensing opticians observe customers’ eyes, corneas, lids, and contact lenses with sophisticated instruments and microscopes. During several followup visits, opticians teach proper insertion, removal, and care of contact lenses.

Work environment. Dispensing opticians work indoors mainly in medical offices, optical stores, or in large department or club stores. Opticians spend a fair amount of time on their feet. If they prepare lenses, they need to take precautions against the hazards of glass cutting, chemicals, and machinery. Although most dispensing opticians work during regular business hours, those in retail stores may work evenings and weekends. Some work part time.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Many employers increasingly prefer dispensing opticians to complete certification or graduate from an accredited 2-year associate’s degree program in opticianry; some large employers may provide an apprenticeship that may last two years or longer.

Education and training. Although a high school diploma is all that is required to get into this occupation, most workers have completed at least some college courses or a degree. Classes in physics, basic anatomy, algebra, and trigonometry as well as experience with computers are particularly valuable. These classes prepare dispensing opticians to learn job skills, including optical mathematics, optical physics, and the use of precision measuring instruments and other machinery and tools.

Structured apprenticeship programs are more commonly available in States where licensing is not mandatory, and these programs are usually offered by large employers. Apprentices receive technical instruction along with training in office management and sales. Under the supervision of an experienced optician, optometrist, or ophthalmologist, apprentices work directly with patients, fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses.

Formal training in the field is offered in community colleges and in a few 4-year colleges and universities. As of 2008, the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation accredited 22 associate degree programs in 13 states. Graduation from an accredited program in opticianry can be advantageous as it provides a nationally recognized credential.

Licensure. As of 2009, twenty-two States require dispensing opticians to be licensed. States may require individuals to pass one or more of the following for licensure: a State practical examination, a State written examination, and certification examinations offered by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) and the National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE). To qualify for the examinations, States often require applicants to complete postsecondary training or work as apprentices for 2 to 4 years.

Some States allow graduates of opticianry programs to take the licensure exam immediately upon graduation; others require a few months to a year of experience. Continuing education is commonly required for licensure renewal. Information about specific licensing requirements is available from the State board of occupational licensing.

Certification and other qualifications. Any optician can apply to the ABO and the NCLE for certification of their skills. Certification signifies to customers and employers that an optician has a certain level of expertise. Certification must be renewed every 3 years through continuing education. The State of Texas offers voluntary registration for the occupation.

Dispensing opticians deal directly with the public, so they should be tactful, pleasant, and able to communicate well. Fitting contact lenses requires considerable skill, care, and patience, so manual dexterity and the ability to do precision work are essential.

Advancement. A few experienced dispensing opticians open their own optical stores. Some become managers of optical stores or sales representatives for wholesalers or manufacturers of eyeglasses or lenses.

Employment as a Dispensing Optician

Dispensing opticians held about 59,800 jobs in 2008. About 40 percent worked in offices of optometrists. Another 33 percent worked in health and personal care stores, including optical goods stores. Many of these stores offer one-stop shopping where customers can have their eyes examined, choose frames, and have glasses made on the spot. Some opticians work in optical departments of department stores or other general merchandise stores, such as warehouse clubs and superstores. About 13 percent worked in offices of physicians, primarily ophthalmologists, who sell glasses directly to patients. One percent were self-employed and ran their own unincorporated businesses.

Job Outlook

Employment of dispensing opticians is expected to grow about as fast as average for all occupations through 2018, as the population ages and demand for corrective lenses increases. Very good job prospects are expected.

Employment change. Employment in this occupation is expected to rise 13 percent over the 2008–18 decade. Middle age is a time when many individuals use corrective lenses for the first time, and elderly persons generally require more vision care than others. As the share of the population in these older age groups increases and as people live longer, more opticians will be needed to provide service to them. In addition, awareness of the importance of regular eye exams is increasing across all age groups, especially children and those over the age of 65. Recent trends indicate a movement toward a “low vision” society, where a growing number of people view things that are closer in distance, such as computer monitors, over the course of an average day. This trend is expected to increase the need for eye care services. Fashion also influences demand. Frames come in a growing variety of styles, colors, and sizes, encouraging people to buy more than one pair.

Somewhat moderating the need for optician services is the increasing use of laser surgery to correct vision problems. Although the surgery remains relatively more expensive than eyewear, patients who successfully undergo this surgery may not require glasses or contact lenses for several years. Also, new technology is allowing workers to make the measurements needed to fit glasses and therefore allowing dispensing opticians to work faster, limiting the need for more workers.

Job prospects. Overall, the need to replace dispensing opticians who retire or leave the occupation will result in very good job prospects. Employment opportunities for opticians in offices of optometrists—the largest employer—will be particularly good as an increasing number of ophthalmologists are expected to utilize better trained opticians to handle more tasks, allowing ophthalmologists to see more patients.

Job opportunities also will be good at general merchandise stores because this segment is expected to experience much faster than average growth, as well as high turnover due to less favorable working conditions, such as long hours and mandatory weekend shifts.

Nonetheless, the number of job openings overall will be somewhat limited because the occupation is small. Also, dispensing opticians are vulnerable to changes in the business cycle because eyewear purchases often can be deferred for a time. Job prospects will be best for those who have certification and those who have completed a formal opticianry program. Job candidates with extensive knowledge of new technology, including new refraction systems, framing materials, and edging techniques, should also experience favorable conditions.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Change,
2008-18
Number Percent
Opticians, dispensing 29-2081 59,800 67,800 8,000 13
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for Dispensing Opticians

Median annual wages of dispensing opticians were $32,810 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $26,170 and $41,930. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $21,250, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $50,580. Median annual wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of dispensing opticians in May 2008 were:

Other general merchandise stores $40,080
Health and personal care stores 34,700
Offices of physicians 34,090
Department stores 33,750
Offices of optometrists 30,460

Benefits for opticians are generally determined by the industries in which they are employed. In general, those who work part-time or in small retail shops have fewer benefits than those who may work for large optical chains or department stores. Self-employed opticians must provide their own benefits.

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