There are approximately 60,000 dispensing opticians in the United States. Projected job growth rates for the next decade indicate the occupation will grow at an average growth rate for all jobs.
- Dispensing opticians work with customers who are nearsighted, farsighted, or have other vision problems that need corrective lens or contact lens. Following the ophthalmologist’s or optometrist’s written instructions, dispensing opticians help customers choose frames that fulfill their occupational and personal needs, educate them regarding lens coatings and thicknesses, and fit the glasses after lenses are inserted into the frames.
- They also fit contact lenses. Dispensing opticians measure the width, thickness, curve and surface of the cornea using highly sensitive diagnostic tools. While some dispensing opticians grind and insert lenses into frames themselves, most write work orders for ophthalmic laboratory technicians who will do this work. Work orders contain information regarding the lens prescription, size information, color, material and design.
- When the glasses are received from the lab, the optician confirms that the order was correctly filled, then custom fits the frames to the customer’s face by bending the arms or another part of the glasses using a special tool. Most opticians repair broken frames as well. Dispensing opticians may be given administrative tasks such as documenting prescriptions, payments and work orders; tracking inventory; and attending to sales.
- After further training, some specialize in fitting contact lens and artificial eyes. Fitting contacts requires the optician to measure the eye size and shape, help the customer choose which type of contact lens is preferable, and writes the work order if the contact lens is not in stock. After the contacts arrive, the optician instructs the customer on how to insert and remove the lens as well as how to keep them clean if they are not disposables.
Dispensing opticians work in optical stores, medical offices, department or big box stores. These offices are well-lit, clean, and well organized.
Job risks include: getting cut by glass, being exposed to chemicals, and potential injury from machines. In addition, they work very closely with customers, touching their eyes, faces and hands; this can pose a health risk in the event of infectious disease. Many dispensing opticians work standard weekday hours. Those who work in big box or department stores may work evenings or weekends. In terms of characteristics, dispensing opticians must pay careful attention to detail to ensure the prescription is correctly filled. Good eye-hand coordination as well as manual dexterity are important. Equally important are good communication skills, since they are working with the public as well as with labs.
Most employers seek dispensing opticians who have completed an accredited two-year associate’s degree program in opticianry or have been certified. Large companies may offer apprenticeships two years or more in length as an alternative. While a degree is not required, most have taken classes in basic anatomy, physics, trigonometry and algebra and also have computer experience. Those who don’t graduate from an accredited associate’s program will learn optical physics and mathematics as well as how to use precision measuring tools on-the-job. Some universities offer a four year bachelor’s degree as well. There are over 20 accredited associate degree programs in the United States.
About half of all states require licensing for dispensing opticians. These states have various licensing requirements, including passing a state written exam or practical exam, or a certification exam administered by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) or the National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE). Some states additionally require that licensing applicants have graduated from a postsecondary training program or been apprenticed for a minimum of two years. Licenses must be renewed periodically, which may involve continuing education.
States that do not require licensing oftentimes have a number apprenticeship programs, typically offered by large companies. Technical instruction, office management and sales are taught. Apprentices are also given many opportunities to work directly with customers, helping them select frames or contact type, fitting glasses and in some cases, contact lenses. This work is monitored by experienced optometrists, opticians, or ophthalmologists.
Certification by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO) or the National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE), while not required, indicates a level of expertise with which customers and employers are more comfortable.
Some highly experienced dispensing opticians advance their careers by opening their own business; others step up into managerial roles. Some become sales representatives for frame or contact lens manufacturers.
The median annual income for dispensing opticians is around $33,000. Those in the midrange of pay received between $26,000 and $42,000. Dispensing opticians in the lowest 10% in terms of pay earn under $22,000 per year, while those in the highest 10% are paid more than $50,000. While self-employed opticians must provide their own medical insurance in addition to other costs associated with running a business, their earnings typically compensate or more than compensate. Dispensing opticians working for large companies typically receive benefits that include medical, dental and vision insurance.