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Dispensing opticians match patients with eyeglasses and contact lenses using prescriptions from optometrists and ophthalmologists to find the right lenses. Finding the right combination of frames, lenses, and lens treatments involves assessing patients' lifestyles, hobbies, careers, and physical features. Some dispensing opticians repair, adjust, and refit damaged frames. Others specialize in contact lenses, cosmetic shells, or artificial eyes.
For patients without prescriptions, opticians typically use a device called a lensometer to measure the distance between one's eyes to determine proper eyeglass fit. Contact lens specialists measure the shape of the eye, a tedious process requiring both skill and patience. Once a dispensing optician has assessed a patient's needs and taken the appropriate measurements, he or she creates work orders for the ophthalmic laboratory technicians who will grind the lenses and fit them into the frames. Opticians must then verify the work and even reconfigure or readjust the product to suit the customer. They must also keep records of customers' prescriptions, work orders, and payments.
As they work closely with patients, dispensing opticians need solid people skills. That means they should be patient and effective communicators. Given the detailed nature of their work, opticians must also have good eye-hand coordination and a detail-oriented nature.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), dispensing opticians earned a median annual wage of $32,810 in 2008. Those working in physician's offices typically earned the most, followed by those working in health and personal care stores, health practitioner offices, and optometrist offices.
Training and Education
While a high school diploma is all that is typically required of a dispensing optician, the BLS reports that most have completed at least some college coursework. Some employers seek applicants with associate's degrees, offered through one of about 20 programs nationwide accredited by the Commission of Opticianary Accreditation. These programs are typically short, requiring a year or less of study, and are offered through community colleges and a small number of 4-year colleges and universities. Relevant coursework includes: anatomy, physics, algebra, and trigonometry. Familiarity with computers is a plus.
On-the-job training remains an important aspect of this career. Many large employers have structured apprenticeship programs, small employers typically provide less formal training on the job.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that 21 states require dispensing opticians to be licensed, a process that usually entails passing a state written exam and certification exams offered by the American Board of Opticianary (ABO) and the National Contact Lens Examiners (NCLE). While some states allow students to take licensure exams upon graduation, others require more experience in the field or apprenticeships beforehand.
Any optician can apply to the ABO or the NCLE for certification regardless of his or her state requirements. Certification must be renewed every 3 years and requires ongoing continuing education courses (CECs).
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, dispensing opticians held about 66,000 jobs in 2006, mostly in optometrists' offices. Nearly a third worked in health stores, including optical goods stores, while others worked in general merchandise stores or physicians' offices.
Employment of dispensing opticians is expected to grow about 9 percent by 2016, which is about as fast as average for all occupations.
An aging population and an increasing number of states requiring eye exams for children as young as five will contribute to steady job growth. Fashion also plays a role as frames continue to come in a variety of colors, sizes, and styles, encouraging patients to invest in more than one pair.
Still, the job pool is relatively small and more patients than ever are undergoing laser surgery to correct vision problems, moderating demand for eye glasses and contact lenses.