Over my years in this industry I’ve found that most Optical Dispensers (Opticians) ‘fell’ into this job – I’m sure that there are some people out there that planned it, but the majority of us had no idea that we would end up in this profession until it happened. And I for one wouldn’t change it for anything.
My own start was quite simple. I had finished VCE and still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I lived in a small rural town and had taken on a part time job at a Newsagency until I ‘figured it out’. After about 6 months of retail, I knew I needed more, so applied for two jobs; one at a Real Estate Agency, and the other at our local Optometrist. I want to be very clear about this – I had absolutely NO connection or idea what happened at either of these businesses at this point. My family didn’t own our house, and no one had ever had glasses in my family either.
Two weeks later I had secured interviews for both, on the same day, 30 mins apart. The day was HOT – 43 degrees from memory. I went to the Real estate interview first, and it went well. After that, I had a three block walk to the Optometrist where the second interview was being held. I walked quickly in the heat, and as I was early, thought I’d have 10 mins or so to compose myself before going through. I was wrong. They were also running early, and took me in straight away.
Their first question was ‘how has your day been’? My answer? ‘Bloody HOT’.
Oh. My. Goodness. But it worked. That one line of being myself, showing that I was ‘real’ and relatable broke the ice and led to a fantastic and fun interview, which ended with a job offer on the spot. If I had have known that I was speaking the THE legendary Kevin Paisley himself that day, things may have gone a very different way, but I’m glad they didn’t.
Working as an Optical Dispenser is not even close to what most people think it is. You have to be energetic, a problem solver, have a naturally caring nature, technically savvy, hands on, curious, love fashion, on top of trends, good with stock management….it’s a role unlike any other. However, because of the roles complex nature it is so much more rewarding than most other jobs. You actually make a difference to people’s lives at the end of the day, you solve their problems, help them with sight, assist in emergencies, help grow someone’s confidence, get to be a style consultant, and believe me, there is nothing quite like seeing a child’s eyes light up when they try on their first pair of glasses and see the world as it is. Priceless.
So, what is an ‘Optical Dispenser’?
There are so many answers to this question it drives me absolutely crazy. I’m going to start this by explaining what it meant when I started, back in 2002. Back then, an Optical Dispenser- also an Optical Mechanic- was trained, and qualified to a National Standard. I did my qualification through RMIT University in Melbourne and it covered everything from the Science of the eye, Science of light and reflection/refraction, lens materials, basic Optometry and terminology, Retail, Sales, Practice management, How to repair glasses, make frames, hand edge (grind) lenses into a frame, lens tinting…..I could go on forever. This course was not brand or store specific – it was Industry specific. I was proud to be called a qualified Optical Dispenser and Mechanic.
These days things are different. It is not essential that you have this qualification to work in a similar position in an Optical practice. People can come from anywhere, be trained by someone they work with and then refer to themselves as an Optical Dispenser. This isn’t the place to say what’s right or wrong etc but I think consumers have the right to know when they are being assisted by someone that is qualified in their field, or not. There is a huge difference, and I know I’d sure like to know. This change started about the time that a certain very large budget chain of eyewear stores opened in Australia approximately 15 years ago. Due to their need for a lot of staff on the floor, they created their own ‘training’ package and that became acceptable. The problem being, that because this training was internal, it was not regulated and only taught employees what the company needed them to know to sell THEIR products. Over the years I have worked with a fair few people who started out with one of these courses, walking into a role in an Independent Practice thinking that they knew what they were doing. Most of them looked extremely shell-shocked by the end of the day and confused about what they had been led to believe about the industry. It really is a big world out there.
Don’t get me wrong, I know there are fully qualified Dispensers working at some of these chains as well, assisting new starters and sharing their experiences and knowledge, which is great. But that doesn’t mean working in one chain store with minimal industry exposure is going to set a person up as the equivalent of a qualified Dispenser/Mechanic.
A very general idea of what an Optical Dispenser actually does
Lets take a quick look at the day-to-day role of an Optical Dispenser in Australia. Most of us start the day by getting into work early to make sure the store is looking amazing, review the patients for the day ahead, and ensure all equipment is ready for the Optometrist. We do reception roles like banking, dealing with Medicare, Health Funds and Institutions along with customer bookings, payments and repairs. When a patient comes out of an Eye exam, we discuss with them the results from the Optometrist and make sure they understand the recommendations, as well as making sure it will cover their needs. We help with frame and lens selection which can take anywhere from 5 mins up to 5 days or longer in some cases. We do repairs on the spot. We quote for bigger technical repairs and organise couriers. We liaise with the lens manufacturers about stock, lens quality issues, and prescriptions. We discuss outcomes with the Optometrists to make sure the recommendations and outcomes are the best for every single patient. We assist with health issues and emergencies which can be anything from detached retinas, foreign objects stuck in the eye, stuck contact lenses- you name it, we’ve seen it! We help with Sunglass selection for prescription, or sports performance, and spend hours helping families select a child’s first pair of glasses, especially if they are special needs or do not like the idea of wearing them!
Believe me, this is an extremely short list. Every time I read this, I come up with another 3-4 things we do on a daily basis, but I can’t write them all or we’ll be here for days! So on top of all of this, we get to be an ear for a lonely senior, a shoulder to cry on for someone that has nowhere else to turn. We – especially females- cop a lot of comments about being a ‘receptionist’, and asking where the ‘male boss’ is by generations that don’t know any different.
What it really means to be an Optical Dispenser
And through all of this we smile. We take a few deep breathes (in my case, eat chocolate) and get back out there with a spring in our step ready to help the next person. Why you ask? Because we are making an actual difference to these people’s lives. We are helping them with our most important sense. We love our job because we cover so many areas it is never boring. We are always learning about new technologies and developments in Eye care and health. We are excited by positive outcomes of solutions we create for our customers and surgeries that improve a patient’s vision. We get excited when we see a frame rep with new models of eyewear that we can show our customers, and can’t wait to call people when their glasses are ready so they can show them off.
It’s not an easy job, but I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing. This qualification has led me to many different opportunities over the years including fashion events, Sales repping, International work and experiences, training, meeting some amazing life-long friends and helping me wake up with a purpose every single day.
The Australian Optical Industry is evolving
What our industry needs now is new blood. We need new go-getters with a passion and drive to exceed where others won’t even think of looking. We need people that want to help people and make a difference to the elite athlete, the 70 year old with cataracts and your next door neighbour who just started school. We are the ones that get to have fun with our customers and build long term relationships. I often get asked why I haven’t gone into Optometry and I always answer the same – that I’d miss having fun out on the floor with my customers! The best people in this role can read customers well and quickly and adapt themselves to any situation. They have an interest in constant learning and an eye for fashion.
Independent Optometry practices are always looking for that next special person to bring into our industry. Independent Optometry practices are the best places to learn because you will be shown the knowledge based on the Industry, not just a brand. They have time to invest in you and genuinely want you to enjoy your work. They care for their customers and staff like family, as this role does take a lot of you into it, but you also get a lot out. If you’re interested in seeing what this role entails, drop into your local Independent practice and ask if you can make a time to talk to them about it.
Sometimes we have to read, be told or run accidently into something to see that it’s a path worth pursuing. Let me tell you that if you’re still reading this now and are looking for a change, THIS IS YOUR SIGN 😉
PS I was offered the Role at the Real Estate agency as well, but luckily I followed my gut instinct and went into the Optical Industry. And I have never looked back.